Christie’s Story: Sometimes Your World Turns Upside Down

Christie Gray admits she’s a bit of a control freak. She likes it when things are organized and predictable. As chief nursing officer and vice president of operations for Miami Valley Hospital, and as mom to 14-year-old daughter Avari, Christie does what she can at home and at work to keep things running smoothly.

But sometimes your world turns upside down, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

Christie knew she was due for a mammogram in April 2020. “But we were in the middle of a pandemic and they weren’t doing mammograms,” she recalls. In June she got a reminder letter and scheduled it for July. She chose the Genius™ 3D Mammography™ that takes multiple images of breast tissue, which makes it easier for breast cancer to be detected.

Shortly after, Pam Madden, CNM, Christie’s advanced practice provider, asked Christie to return for a follow-up ultrasound. Doctors saw something suspicious, a possible mass, and wanted a closer look. “I have dense breast tissue, so I was used to follow-up ultrasounds,” says Christie. “I always got the ‘all-clear’ afterwards.”

But this time Christie was asked to return yet again. Surgeon Melissa Roelle, MD, FACS, MD Anderson Cancer Network®  -certified physician at Miami Valley Hospital with Wright State Physicians, wanted to take a needle biopsy. Christie would learn the results at a follow-up meeting with Dr. Roelle.

Whether results are good or bad, Dr. Roelle always delivers the news at a face-to-face meeting. “It allows for more open communication, and it lets us physically review the reports together rather than on the phone,” explains Dr. Roelle, who has treated breast cancer patients in Dayton for 14 years. “I feel I’m better able to help patients navigate the situation when we are together.”  

Life – And Death – Can Be Unexpected

Christie didn’t want to worry her family needlessly about the suspicious mass in her breast, so she didn’t mention the meeting to her daughter or her parents. “They had been through enough,” says Christie, referring to her husband Jason’s sudden death two years prior. “So I didn’t ask anyone to join me for the meeting with Dr. Roelle.”

A co-worker made Christie promise that if the news was not good, Christie would summon her immediately for support. “Before the meeting began, I took one look at Dr. Roelle’s face, paused, and asked my co-worker to join us,” says Christie. “This wasn’t going to be good news.”

She was right.

Christie had HR+ HER2- breast cancer. And it was aggressive. As a hospital administrator, Christie knew cancer. “I had the basic knowledge,” she says, “but now they’re talking about me. I was numb.”

It didn’t take long for Christie’s take-charge attitude to kick in. “I was ready to get on with this. But Dr. Roelle said ‘no, we need to pump the brakes.’ She ordered an MRI to determine if there were other areas of concern.” She carefully explained Christie’s options for surgery, and also suggested genetic testing to determine if Christie was among the 5 to 10 percent of patients who get breast cancer as a result of an inherited risk. While Christie’s cancer turned out not to be inherited, “knowing whether a patient’s cancer is inherited helps us better address the current cancer and be proactive and preemptive regarding future cancer risks,” Dr. Roelle explains.

Although Dr. Roelle was willing to try a lumpectomy, Christie refused. “I didn’t want this hanging over my head for the rest of my life, so I told her I wanted both breasts removed.” Christie also wanted Todd Hicks, MD, to do breast reconstruction. “You gotta have some lemonade at the end!” she reasoned.

Because Christie’s cancer was estrogen-driven, she had her ovaries removed so her body would stop producing estrogen. This meant that, in addition to everything else, Christie would immediately experience symptoms of menopause. She also had four chemotherapy treatments as a preventive measure.

It was a lot to go through, but Christie’s attitude remained positive. That’s a plus, says Dr. Roelle. “During breast cancer treatment, many times there is not much — if anything — a patient can control,” she says. “Taking control of your attitude is empowering, not just for mental health during cancer treatment, but also in successful outcomes.”  

Not ‘Why Me?’ But ‘Why My Daughter?’

When Christie’s husband died unexpectedly in January 2019, “we didn’t have a clue there was anything wrong with him,” says Christie. “He was young, fit, and active.” Daughter Avari was just 11. “She endured so much,” says Christie. “So when I got my diagnosis, I didn’t wonder ‘why me?’ There’s no good answer to that, and you know, I’m an adult. I can deal with it.” Instead Christie worried about her daughter. “It was more…why does she have to deal with this? Why does my experience cause her to question whether I’m going to be here for her?”

In usual fashion, Christie tackled that beast head-on. “Avari and I talked a lot. I mean, a lot! Because the prognosis was good, I wanted to assure Avari her other parent wasn’t going anywhere. I was going to be OK.”

A New Normal

Today, Christie’s cancer journey has slowly begun to fade. Life has returned to normal, or as normal as it can be after the sudden death of your husband, then a pandemic, breast cancer, and menopause. Christie’s hair has grown back, “curlier, kind of like a golden doodle,” she laughs. She and Avari’s days are back to being organized.

But Christie knows that life can be fragile and unpredictable. Sometimes your world turns upside down, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. Even if you’re a control freak.

Getting your mammogram is your first important step for breast health and to fight breast cancer. Schedule your mammogram online or call (855) 887-7364(855) 887-7364 Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., or Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Headshot of Melissa Roelle, MD,FACS

Melissa Roelle, MD,FACS

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