Condell doctors travel tough cancer path together

April 2014

By Vincent Pierri | Daily Herald Staff

Eileen Morrison and Adriana Spellman walked 60 miles together in this month's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

The three-day fundraising hike was tough, but it doesn't compare to the two-year journey the Libertyville doctors spent fighting cancer.

Friends for 20 years and partners in practice, the 47-year-old obstetrician/gynecologists were diagnosed with breast cancer within a year of each other.

Neither has a family history. Neither imagined they would be battling the disease.

But, they say the ordeal has not only strengthened their friendship, it's made them better doctors.

"We've gotten a lot of women into early detection," Morrison said. "They can't look at us and say, 'I don't want to get a mammogram.' I say, 'Let me tell you a little story.' You can see their face drop and they say, 'OK, I'll go right now.'"

The Advocate Condell Medical Center physicians met in 1989 while residents at Chicago's Illinois Masonic Hospital. Their careers went in different directions until Morrison joined Spellman's practice in 1995.

The pair worked side by side delivering thousands of babies and treating scores of women over the years. In that time, the doctors have always stressed the importance of mammography to their patients.

Following their own advice, they had regular exams, but lived with a false confidence about their own vulnerability.

That security vanished when Morrison got the results of a routine exam in May 2007. The test showed a suspicious mass, but Morrison said she wasn't all that concerned.

"I'm thinking, this is nothing. But I went in for the biopsy and there it was. It was horrifying," she said. "I had no family history of breast cancer or risk factors. I felt like I took a bullet. We talk to patients about this all the time. In my mind, I wasn't going to get breast cancer."

The news was equally startling to Spellman and the two other doctors in the practice.

"We were all very surprised," Spellman said. "We were all supportive, but very, very surprised."

As Morrison's personal physician, Spellman became intimately involved. Doctor and patient discussed treatment options and hoped for a positive outcome.

A newer procedure called a "mammosite" proved to be the best choice for Morrison. The targeted radiation therapy, combined with a removal of the tumor, put her on a relatively speedy path to recovery.

It was a bit ironic that a doctor who treats women with breast cancer would contract the disease, but what are the chances it would strike twice in the same small office?

Watching her friend deal with the disease, Spellman made sure she never missed her own exams. The tests were always negative until the results of a mammogram taken in 2008 jolted Spellman. The radiologist found a mass.

The news was awful for her, and especially stunning for Morrison.

"I couldn't believe it. It wasn't supposed to happen," Morrison said. "We looked at each other and said, 'What the hell? Is this something in our office?' It was just as shocking as when I was diagnosed myself."

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. The chances of developing breast cancer at some time in a woman's life is about 1 in 8. An estimated 190,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2009. Of those, about 41,000 women will die.

Spellman's treatment involved a combination of radiation, 12 weeks of chemo therapy and surgical removal of the tumor.

Although terrifying at times and painful, they say the experience has taken them to a new level as doctors.

"We care about our patients and they care about us," Morrison said. "I'm always upfront and never secretive. They were very supportive through it all."

Spellman said it wasn't easy to be honest with her patients at first.

"I had a hard time telling them," she said. "The doctor is sick? How can the doctor be sick?"

But she said the honesty has allowed for a more meaningful connection with the women.

"We have an empathy now that's different," Spellman said. "Our patients understand that we really do understand. They know that we know."

Both doctors are cancer-free now and say the chances for reoccurrence are statistically small.

But that doesn't mean finding a cure is any less important.

Their 10-woman team, "Breast Friends Forever," raised nearly $30,000 in the recent fundraising walk. "Our feet were sore but it was an amazing experience," Morrison said.




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