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Published on March 01, 2016

Conquering cancer ... with the help of some angels

What comes to mind when you think of a guardian angel? Denise Mills might say the archangel Michael from the Bible. That’s because she dreamed of him during her battle with cancer.

Denise MillsIt’s a battle that changed the 50-year-old mother of seven. Before cancer, Denise never spoke up for herself. And her prayers were always on behalf of others, never for herself.

But cancer turned her into a fighter—a conqueror, she says. Her faith in God—and the earthly angels she believes He put beside her every step of the way—helped her fight for her life. And in the process, she inspired other cancer patients—and the team that treated her at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital.

Becoming a conqueror

In February 2014, Denise had a scary dream in which she was running for her life. The archangel Michael came down and used his sword to save her. Denise mostly kept the dream to herself, though a close friend believed it was a message to go to church.

Two months later, in April, Denise discovered a lump under her arm. “I thought it might be an abscess,” she says. So she didn’t get it checked out—partly for fear of what it might be.

By May, the lump was much bigger. After church one day, Denise showed her sister-in-law Aleathea. “She felt it, and she jumped back,” Denise says. Aleathea insisted Denise get an X-ray right away.

“I wasn’t going to go,” Denise says. “I was so scared. My daughter and son hugged me and said, ‘Mom, please go’.” The sorrow in her children’s eyes convinced her to go.

The X-ray led to a biopsy that showed inflammatory breast cancer. That’s when a team of medical angels rallied to Denise’s side.

Acting fast to save lives

Denise MillsAs they do for all their patients, the cancer treatment team at Mercy Philadelphia moved quickly to help Denise.

“When you have cancer, we immediately schedule tests and get you set up for treatment,” says Sue La Salle, MSN, RN, OCN, nurse navigator at Mercy Philadelphia and a key member of Denise’s team. “At other hospitals, you might wait six weeks just to get an appointment.”

Not only does the team move swiftly, but they also work together to ensure a collaborative, patient-centered approach. Denise’s team included Surgeon Leon Clarke, MD, and Oncologist Michael Rachshtut, MD.

“The team really starts with the patient,” Dr. Clarke says. “At every step, the patient is a key decision maker. We are the advisers.”

Within days, Denise was weighing her team’s advice. Ultimately, she chose to have chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy. During her treatment, the Mercy Philadelphia team was amazed at the changes they saw in the shy woman who arrived hiding behind her long hair.

“At first, Denise was tearful and fearful, as anyone would be,” Dr. Clarke says. “But once she put her mind to it, she went from a passive person to a cheerleader for other patients too.”

“When I met her, she could barely tell us her full name,” Sue says. “She was scared. But she was also determined. She didn’t care how she had to do it, but she was going to beat this.”

“Our offices are next door to the chemo suite, so we see our patients every day,” Dr. Rachshtut says. “And Denise surprised us. She went from needing hugs to giving hugs, from needing to be consoled to consoling others.”

Denise became a vibrant presence in the chemo suite, offering hope to other patients. She told them, “If I can do this, you can do it.” According to Sue, “Denise would say, ‘There’s nothing to worry about while you’re here. The doctors and nurses will take really good care of you’.”

Into the future

Several months after her mastectomy, Denise had a seizure caused by two brain tumors. After brain surgery at Mercy Philadelphia, she surprised everyone with how quickly she healed—once again trusting God to answer her prayers to take the disease away.

To others who are diagnosed with cancer, she has this message: “You are conquerors. We are conquerors. It’s gonna be hard. But guess what? That is something God wants you to feel so you can take the experience with you and help somebody else.”

Breast cancer: By the numbers

89.4%: The majority of women who get breast cancer will survive five years or more after being diagnosed.

55-64: It’s most frequently diagnosed among women in this age range.

No. 1: It’s the most common cancer in women of all races and ethnicities.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Cancer Institute

Walk Right In

Mercy Philadelphia Hospital offers walk-in screening mammograms every Wednesday and Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital offers walk-in screening mammograms every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Bring your signed physician prescription, insurance card and photo ID.

For more information, call 610.237.2525.

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