Kat Caverly, center, with Doris Blaha and Ellen Marshall of the Oncology Support Program at HealthAlliance Hospital: Mary’s Avenue Campus.
A Kingston woman has fought cancer by enjoying life and seeking help from the Center for Breast Health at HealthAlliance Hospital: Mary’s Avenue Campus.
By Debra Bresnan
Despite a family history of breast cancer, and screenings that began at age 30, there were some years when comedienne-filmmaker-writer Kat Caverly didn’t get her annual mammogram. That was until July 2013 when, just shy of 58 years old, Caverly went to her family doctor to have a swollen lymph node under her arm checked.
Following an office exam, mammogram and ultrasound, she was sent to Zoe Weinstein, MD, a breast surgeon and Medical Director of the Center for Breast Health at HealthAlliance Hospital: Mary’s Avenue Campus, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).Shortly after that, Caverly got a phone call confirming the diagnosis of lymph node positive breast cancer.
“My first thought,” Caverly says, “was of how hard it must be to give somebody that news.”
“Yes, making that call is terrible,” agrees Dr. Weinstein. “It’s hard for patients to process the news. The first time they hear the words, they won’t remember a lot of what I’m saying.”
But Caverly does remember. “Dr. Zoe said, ‘Take advantage of 21st century science.’ I’m a science-nerd/artist. I realized my life was at risk. I decided to approach my health and well-being as a scientist.”
She found the center’s robust, patient-centered breast cancer treatment program to be a great resource. The center attracts people from Ulster, Dutchess and surrounding counties.
A nurse navigator speaks with patients, imaging-center staff and referring doctors. The navigator helps facilitate biopsies and assesses patients for stress levels if they have a cancer diagnosis.
Chemo (and music) therapy
Caverly, who lives in Kingston, thought she’d have to travel to New York City for chemotherapy treatments. She was pleased when Riolin Andrade, MD, medical oncologist at HealthAlliance Hospital: Mary’s Avenue Campus, said she could be cared for in her hometown. “He explained that medical protocol now connects cancer doctors to all major cancer centers, and the care I got here in Kingston was in every way excellent. The doctors, nurses, receptionists — everybody — went out of their way to make it all as easy as possible for me,” says Caverly. “I said, ‘If you make it any easier, it’s going to be fun, and everyone’s going to want to do it.’”
Caverly curated playlists of uplifting songs to listen to during chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatments. “It was joyous. I was dancing in my infusion chair,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have been able to sit through four hours without it.”
She received radiation treatments in the same building.
HealthAlliance offers a wide array of psychosocial services, targeted for various stages of treatment and recovery through the hospital’s Oncology Support Program. Caverly joined a weekly memoir group run by local author Ann Hutton and says, “I never would have believed it would be so critical to my recovery.”
Individually tailored treatments and comic relief
“In the past, breast cancer treatment was focused on a surgical cure. Before the 1980s, chemotherapy was not that effective and drugs like tamoxifen had not been applied to breast cancer treatment,” Dr. Weinstein says. “There was no emphasis on saving the breast because without good adjuvant therapy, the only option was to remove it. No one cared about how women felt about their breasts because the option of removing the tumor and leaving the breast was not there. At that time, once breast cancer was diagnosed and the breast was removed, the cancer could have traveled to other parts of the body and women died anyway, despite having a masectomy.
“Now, with advances in breast imaging and better understanding of tumor biology, breast cancer treatments can be very tailored, and very effective. This allows for breast conservation and improved survival from breast cancer,” Weinstein adds.
Once her tumor shrank to the size of a grape, Caverly agreed to have Weinstein perform a lumpectomy to remove it on one condition: Everyone had to wear a red rubber clown nose during the surgery. “Even Dr. Zoe wore it,” shares Caverly, “though I said it was okay for her to take it off during the procedure, but I left mine on. Being a clown is how I approach life; it’s what I do. Laughing is priming for serious things. I watch a lot of funny videos — both my own and videos I find on YouTube or Facebook. Sloths are always smiling, but really it can be anything… kittens, porcupines, any baby animals.”
Celebrating life — on film
Caverly recognized an important part of the challenge she faced was within her own mind, not just her body. In 2015, with the help of her husband, Tom Reeve, she filmed a 14-minute memoir documenting her somewhat unconventional coping mechanisms during treatment. In Coping With Uncertainty, Caverly uses art and philosophy, humor and reason, and science and common sense to help her doctors vanquish the tumor.
“It was a very rewarding experience taking care of Kat,” says Dr. Weinstein, who bought her video to give to patients. Caverly also has an online greeting card company, which she launched last summer.
According to Dr. Weinstein, the will of the individual is 90 percent of the game. “One of the things that was so rewarding about working with Kat was that she embraced treatment. She did everything we asked her to do, and she documented it. Her experience definitely helps other people now.”
Now on a 10-year regimen of anti-estrogen hormone treatments, Caverly eats healthy food, exercises daily and laughs frequently. “Cancer will be with me for the rest of my life — but not every day. Dr. Andrade’s advice was excellent. He said, ‘Enjoy your life,’ and I follow my doctor’s prescription. I comply with the tests and monitoring. ‘Your job,’ he told me, ‘is not thinking about it. That’s for the doctors to worry about.’”
“People don’t know how to act around cancer,” Caverly concedes. “People think you’re not supposed to enjoy life anymore, but where does it say that? I didn’t agree to that. I never thought of myself as ‘sick’.”
Cancer Care at WMCHealth
Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital
(866) WMC-PEDS (866-962-7337)
Redl Center for Cancer Care
The Bobbi Lewis Cancer Program at Good Samaritan Hospital
Center for breast health
Photos By John Halpern