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Nurse receives breast cancer care close to her Athens home

Melisa Collum is very familiar with being inside a hospital. After working at hospitals in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then Wheeling, West Virginia, Collum moved to East Texas to care for her mother.

She continued her nursing career at UT Health Athens where she worked on the medical/surgical floor, the intensive care unit and the emergency department. She collaborated with and got to know many of the doctors at the hospital, including general surgeon, Dr. Robert Dorman.

But years later, Melisa, 47, found herself in a patient’s room – her own room – when she was admitted for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery due to being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Family history of breast cancer

“My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 48,” Melisa said. “She beat that round of cancer but succumbed to it when it moved to her lungs and brain. My aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 52 and died 2 months later.”

It was mid-2021 when Melisa felt something new.

“We were doing an emergency procedure on a patient when I felt the lump. I knew right away what it was, but I wasn’t ready to face it,” she said.

An ultrasound and mammogram in November confirmed that there were three lumps, which she had removed and evaluated. That’s when Melisa found out that she had HER2-positive breast cancer.

HER2 is a protein that stimulates cancer cells to grow at an accelerated pace. Fortunately, even though Melisa’s breast cancer was expected to grow and spread quickly, this type of cancer also responds well to drugs that target the HER2 protein.

Treatment and care in Athens

With her good working relationship with Dr. Dorman, Melisa felt comfortable confiding in him about her illness.

“I’ll always remember the day Melisa took me aside on the medical-surgical floor to tell me about her breast cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Dorman said. “She was understandably scared, but she was not weak. She was already taking charge of her situation and defining for herself how she wanted things to proceed. The resiliency and strength of women who combat this illness head-on has always impressed me and Melisa was no different.”

They discussed the good and the bad of what Melisa would soon face, including chemotherapy, which would have to happen before surgery.

“Melisa knew that if possible, she wanted mastectomies of both breasts with reconstructive surgery,” said Dr. Dorman. “As I was talking to her, I just kept thinking how great it was that UT Health Athens could take care of all aspects of Melisa’s care. We didn’t have to send her to an unfamiliar hospital for her procedures and treatments.”

A few years ago, UT Health Athens did not have a comprehensive breast care program. But with partnerships between providers and with administration support, the hospital has built an entire program that can offer the highest quality care for patients like Melisa.

“It takes a team of providers and coordinators to do it well, including radiologists, oncologists, radiation oncologists, plastic surgeons like Dr. Paul Critelli and breast cancer surgeons like me, to make this all work. Dr. Michael J. Klouda and Dr. Brandon Ashton at the UT Health East Texas HOPE Breast Center in Tyler were instrumental in the diagnosis and work-up of Melisa’s cancer. Dr. Shawn Tai with the HOPE Cancer Center wasted no time moving forward with the preoperative chemotherapy,” recalled Dr. Dorman.

Melisa’s HER2-positive breast cancer grew very quickly, nearly three-times as large as seen in the first biopsy. So before surgery could happen, chemotherapy was needed to shrink the tumors.

She went through six rounds of chemotherapy and 12 rounds of the Herceptin drug treatment. The day after Melisa’s last chemotherapy treatment, she underwent mastectomies and breast reconstruction during a single surgery.

Dr. Dorman removed the breasts and the tissue of the tumors,” said Melisa. “Then Dr. Critelli inserted the expanders to expand the chest wall muscles around the implants. A port also was installed to eventually inflate the implants to the size I wanted.”

Guiding other breast cancer patients

Not too long after her surgery, Melisa was faced with a new job opportunity.

“When I arrived at Dr. Dorman’s office for my first follow-up appointment after the mastectomy, I noticed that there was no nurse at the desk,” Melisa said. “I asked the practice manager where she was and found out that she had just quit. So I told her, ‘I would love to work here and help other breast cancer patients.’ About a week later, Dr. Dorman called and asked me to join his team and help grow breast cancer care in Athens,” she said.

“Melisa advocates for all patients and her level of empathy is beyond compare,” said Dr. Dorman. “She has truly found her passion in the treatment of breast cancer patients.”

With all the contacts she has in other offices, Melisa gets a lot of things done, including:

  • Arranging appointments for patients in outside clinics
  • Scheduling biopsies and imaging appointments
  • Spearheading the office’s genetic analysis project
  • Providing resources for patients

As a breast cancer survivor, Melisa also provides a lot of credibility with the patients, as she can answer any question about their procedures - before or afterward.

“Melisa laughs with patients and she cries with patients,” said Dr. Dorman. “Patients come to our office to see her, not me. If you are a breast cancer patient out there in the community of East Texas, find Melisa - she will take care of you.”

Melisa fields questions from patients about all aspects of breast cancer, surgery and reconstruction, like how long will the pain block work or how to do self-care after surgery.

Sometimes people will call because they just feel like something's wrong, but they're not sure. I will answer their questions but also invite them to stop by the office to let me look at them. Most of the time, they just want someone else to know their concerns and answer their questions.”

Serving these patients is why Melisa enjoys what she is doing and feels called to help other patients like herself.

“There were so many people who helped me through this,” Melisa said, “that I want to do my part and help others. This is just my way of paying it forward.”

For more information about our breast care services in Athens, visit our website.