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`Ohana Mammography Center and North Star Lodge helped her beat breast cancer

Debbie Hulbert sparkles. It’s not just the proud gleam in her eyes of what she’s overcome, but an overall glow that can only be described as electric. She’s a fighter, and this past year she put up the fight of her life. Debbie—a 57-year-old wife, mother, grandmother, and graphic artist from Ellensburg—bested breast cancer.

A year ago, Debbie felt a large lump in her breast.

“We had gone to Jazz in the Valley, and when we got home, I was getting undressed and felt a very obvious lump in my breast. Not a lump I could have missed.”

Debbie’s familiarity with her body left no room for doubt; a large lump appearing so quickly meant it was rapidly growing. Unable to see her regular doctor, Debbie rushed to see Anna Parr, a PA-C with Kittitas Valley Hospital in Ellensburg. Parr referred Debbie to KVH for a mammogram, but securing an appointment proved impossible, so she turned to `Ohana Mammography Center. They saw Debbie the very next day.

At `Ohana, the scans confirmed the presence of a large mass. Debbie was paired with a Nurse Navigator who explained what was going on and helped her to schedule a biopsy. The biopsy confirmed Debbie had a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer known as triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC, which had already progressed to Stage 3. Debbie’s cancer had moved beyond the breast and into her lymph nodes.

“I like to say Stage 3 is like getting on the on-ramp, but it hadn’t reached the freeway yet. The cancer had reached my lymph nodes but hadn’t traveled through the lymphatic system to my whole body,” says Debbie. “I had options.”

Debbie was referred to Siva Krishna Mannem, MD, an oncologist at North Star Lodge Cancer Care, to determine the best treatment to fight her disease. Her initial appointment was a few weeks out, but when Debbie explained her growth had gone from the size of a pea to the size of a walnut in about a week, she was rescheduled immediately. Specialists throughout the Yakima Valley Memorial system convened a roundtable to discuss Debbie’s case. They determined she should first undergo chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation. It would be a difficult battle. Debbie’s research showed that the survival rate for this type of cancer at Stage 3 was about 10%.

“I decided that if 10 out of 100 people survived this disease, why couldn’t I be one of those 10?”

Debbie was paired with Nurse Navigator Beth Palmer at North Star. Beth helped coordinate her cancer journey. Through the pMD® application on her phone, Debbie could contact Beth day or night with questions or concerns.

“I’m not sure if pMD® means personal medical doctor, but that’s what I called it. I had a personal connection to Beth any time I needed help.”

The cancer took a toll, but Debbie has a strong support system at home and at North Star. Debbie’s husband Richard built an art studio in his shop, so she had something to look forward to after treatment. When Debbie had no appetite, she worked with a nutritionist at North Star to better understand what she could eat to address her issues. When her nausea became too much, the pharmacy staff at North Star developed a four-pill series to help her keep down the food.

After her diagnosis, North Star connected Debbie with Memorial’s genetic testing program. Through genetic testing, Debbie found she carries the BRCA2 gene mutation, a genetic marker that heightens the risk for certain cancers like Debbie’s. This encouraged Debbie’s daughter and other women in the family to test.

“Because of genetic testing through Memorial, the women in my family—my daughter, my sisters, and their daughters—can now test and take precautions to avoid cancer. It gave us a tool to help save lives,” says Debbie.

Rebounding from cancer, Debbie recently put her feelings on canvas, painting her cancer journey.

“The bright colors in the background, that was me before cancer. The clouds are cancer, covering almost all of me, but not all of me. I’m still there peeking through. The water shows the emotions that cancer causes. And to the right, the little light, bright happy spot, that’s me—cancer-free.”

In December, Debbie will finish the remainder of her treatments, have her port removed, and undergo a minor cosmetic procedure to fill in the gaps left where her breasts were removed. She says she’s not interested in full breast reconstruction, joking that she’s enjoying not having to wear a bra anymore.

She credits the exceptional care she received at `Ohana, North Star Lodge, and all the Memorial family of services and Memorial’s partnerships with other health care entities throughout the region with saving her life.

“I’ve received great care here. I love that everything is connected. `Ohana and North Star and the hospital are all in the same system,” says Debbie. “I feel completely confident in the care I received here and the quality of the care I received.”

Debbie says that right now, she’s celebrating that she’s still here…and it shows from the smile on her face to the glow all around her. Debbie is embracing life.