In honor of Debra Holmes

When Debra Holmes lost her hair during chemotherapy, she explained it to her two grandchildren, ages five and nine, in a novel way that she felt they could understand. “I told them that what I was taking was like a super drug and it was so powerful I lost my hair.”

Debra’s journey with breast cancer began in February of 2010 with a call from her doctor with the results of a biopsy test  She recalls that afternoon vividly when she hung up the phone and told her husband, Art, that she had breast cancer. “We both cried together, but once we got that out of our systems, we decided to attack this problem practically and needed to answer the questions:  “What’s next? How are we going to handle this? What needs to be done?’”

They came to UNC for a second opinion and decided to stay. “I had a full day at UNC. I met Drs. Keith Amos, William Irvin and Ellen Jones, their nurse managers and navigators and the staff. They all took their time to talk to us, and we felt comfortable and that we were in good hands, the hands of people who cared about the person. My spirit told me ‘you’re in the right place.’”

Debra underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  Six months later, she underwent breast reconstruction surgery.  She recently finished follow-up care for the reconstructive surgery in 2012.

In an effort to give back for the wonderful treatment she received at UNC, Debra now serves on the Patient and Family Advisory Board for the N.C Cancer Hospital. “I had a positive experience through a difficult time.  I want to try in my small way to make sure that everyone else has a good experience like that, that they have confidence in the care and in the hospital that is going to treat them.”

Debra is a ‘rounder.’ She visits with inpatients and talks with them about their UNC experience, asking them for their comments and criticisms. “Some patients don’t want to share a lot or don’t want to talk, but some will give very good constructive criticism about what needs to be better.  We want to know if they have a good experience, if they have not had a good experience, or what can we do as a cancer hospital to improve their stay.”

Feedback from rounders is given to N.C. Cancer Hospital administrators. “If I think something needs immediate attention, before I leave, I let the nurse supervisor know, and she tells me, ‘I will take care of it right away.’”

Debra feels she has changed as a result of her cancer experience. “Cancer teaches you the value of life.  Every day is precious.  Love the ones you love and make sure they know you love them. The question that is always in the back of my mind:  ‘is it going to come back?’  But I keep it far back in my mind and don’t want to bring it forward.  I want to continue to focus on living now.”

To those newly diagnosed she offers this advice. “New patients should be absolutely comfortable and confident with their providers who are going to treat them so that there is always open dialogue and time to get your questions answered.  Then you want to try to look ahead. That can be very difficult to do.  When I was going through everything with my cancer, it was very hard for me to see or think about how things would be a year later. And when that time does arrive, you can only be thankful and look back at the journey you have gone through. Love and live life abundantly.”

Debra and Art, new members of the UNC Lineberger Board of Visitors, are celebrating her survivorship with a trip to France.  “Why do we need to wait until the five-year mark to celebrate?  We’re celebrating now and every day going forward.”