“I can’t believe you keep driving there.” Friends still say this to Utica resident Joanne Paratore about her four-hour round-trip drives to Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Pluta Cancer Center to receive treatment for breast cancer.
Her response: “Come with me one time.”
With a smile, she tells them about her friendly team, her intelligent doctors and the comfortable setting – foot massages during chemo visits stand out as a major perk – and they start to understand it’s a special place for cancer care. But it wasn’t always like that for Joanne. At her initial visit, she didn’t feel so upbeat.
“When I first walked into Pluta, I refused to look up. I didn’t want to see the sign on the building that read “Cancer Center,” she says. “I threw myself a really good pity party. I got over that and went to work. Then I became an advocate for myself and tried to seek out what I could.”
She decided from the outset that she wanted to go someplace beyond her hometown, to a breast cancer specialist. She reached out to her son, who is a doctor, and he suggested someone in particular: Peter Prieto, M.D., MPH, a surgical oncologist who’d just arrived in Rochester not long before. Call it serendipity or luck, but Joanne already had a history of sorts with the University of Rochester and Strong Memorial Hospital, as her mother trained here in the 1960s to become an x-ray technician.
She went into her first appointment determined to get a double mastectomy. Even though the chances of getting a second breast cancer in the opposite breast after an initial diagnosis are extremely small, she felt she wouldn’t be able to stop worrying unless she had both breasts removed. She decided she wanted reconstruction with it as well. So, Dr. Prieto connected her with Howard Langstein, M.D., a plastic surgeon who also specializes in oncology. Knowing she traveled from out of town, Dr. Langstein saw her that same day.
Working as a team, Dr. Prieto performed a double mastectomy with nipple-sparing surgery, while Dr. Langstein stepped in to begin the reconstruction. As part of the process, in March 2019, Dr. Langstein put in expanders, devices that help stretch the skin and muscle to make room for more permanent implants.
While her cancer was mostly localized, she did end up needing chemotherapy. That led her to medical oncologist Allison Magnuson, D.O. Joanne received chemotherapy every three weeks, which meant that long commute to Pluta, but she didn’t mind because she got to know the team, and they made chemo visits enjoyable.
“You can ask the women at chemo,” she says. “We had some pretty good times. Finding some joy and humor during treatment is critical for me and my mental health.”
She can tick off the names of her caregivers in the infusion room, including “Steve the soup guy.” And, more often than not, Dr. Magnuson or Dr. Prieto would stop down to say hi. It meant a lot.
“If it weren’t for all these people and support, it would’ve been much harder for me,” she says. “It can’t be overstated how wonderful it is to have all my caregivers under the same roof.”
It wasn’t just the supportive staff that made her feel confident about her choice, though. She knew she had oncologists who are experts in their specialties.
“They’re so cutting-edge here at Wilmot and the University of Rochester,” she says. “Both Dr. Magnuson and Dr. Prieto are researchers, so if something is out on the horizon, they’re going to know it.”
Joanne had a few side effects from chemotherapy, including some nausea and fatigue, but keeping up her exercise routine and taking an afternoon nap really helped with that.
She received radiation therapy, also at Pluta, with Jan Dombrowski, M.D. That was every day for five weeks, but fortunately, she was able to stay at a friend’s house on Cayuga Lake, which helped make the daily drive during the week a little more feasible.
She finished radiation therapy but still comes in monthly for an injection of leuprolide (Lupron), which works to stop the ovaries from making estrogen, an important factor for Joanne, since her cancer diagnosis is estrogen sensitive.
But she doesn’t really mind coming in, because now she knows everyone. It’s no longer like that first visit, with her head down, not wanting to look around. She looks up and takes in the people around her.
“I know all the receptionists by name,” she says. “There’s something to be said about that.”