For cancer survivor, life is about a ‘hero’ and early detection

Cancer had already taken a personal toll on Jill Niessen when her own diagnosis came.

Her brother had lost his battle with lung cancer, and she was heading to the doctor because she was having trouble breathing during hikes.

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A chest X-ray showed a growth in her lung, which meant having a biopsy via a CT scan at Royal Jubilee Hospital. It was cancer, even though Niessen, then 65, hadn’t smoked since the age of 22.

“I had a cancerous tumour in my chest,” Niessen said. “The news took my breath away, the very breath I was starting to lose with this disease.”

She said it was “very strange” to end up with the same illness her brother had.

It marked one of her first full-on experiences with the health-care system, and she said she was impressed right from the start. Niessen said the care she received at Royal Jubilee has made it possible for her to be here to tell her story.

She said the tumour “was found from nothing.”

“It was just from feeling a little bit breathless and thinking I was too old to go walking anymore,” Niessen said. “An X-ray just showed it out of the blue.”

Thoracic surgeon Dr. John Samphire — Niessen calls him her hero — was guided by the diagnosis from the scans when he removed the tumour on the upper right lobe of her lung.

She said she is thankful not only for the care she received, but also how quickly everything happened.

“The cancer had no time to spread, meaning I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation,” Niessen said. “Thank goodness for that. I was really lucky.”

It meant she could get back to her life in short order, and with a changed perspective.

Life, she has concluded, is “a strong, complicated, delicate thing.”

You likely know someone like her, Niessen said — a proud grandmother, a loving mother and a grateful resident of Victoria. Whoever you are, she said, take comfort in the fact that talented medical professionals like Samphire and radiologist Dr. Stuart Silver, along with many other caregivers, live in the region.

“But also understand just how central advanced medical equipment is to our health,” she said. “The CT scanner was essential in my diagnosis, the removal of my tumour, and now through follow-up. It has given me a new lease on life, and I am here to enjoy every minute of it.”

She said that having the technology used on her was a little frightening at first, “but actually it’s old hat now.”

Niessen said she didn’t really know much about CT scanners and other devices at the outset, but is fully aware now.

“It’s amazing what that equipment can do for us.”

For her, the equipment has made it possible to have a clean bill of health since her tumour was removed in 2017.

“I have follow-ups every four months, a CT scan,” Niessen said. “The last one was still clear, so they’re going to make them every six months now.”

She said her positive experience has prompted her to speak up for the Victoria Hospitals Foundation’s Big Picture Campaign — a fundraising effort for state-of-the-art medical-imaging equipment such as CT scanners and MRI units.

Silver said CT scans are vital to providing care to patients.

“It is a fundamental tool for diagnosing cancer and following cancer patients after their treatment,” he said. “In the case of a patient like Jill, it allowed her doctors to diagnose and remove a cancer before it spread behind her lungs.”

In explaining the need for a new CT scanner in the capital region, he said it is useful to consider the difference between a 10-year-old home computer and a new one.

“Now imagine that difference in an incredibly complex computer-driven machine that can help a surgeon locate and remove a lung tumour, or guide an interventional radiologist while extracting a blood clot from the brain.”

Donations to the Big Picture Campaign can be made online at victoriahf.ca/bigpicture, by calling 250-519-1750 or by mail to Wilson Block 1952 Bay St., Victoria, B.C., V8R1J8.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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