October 27, 2020

Screening and early detection: A survivor’s story

Kaiser Permanente member Barbara Belk shares wisdom from her recent breast cancer journey.

In addition to her highly integrated Kaiser Permanente care team, Babs Belk credits mental and physical self-care as key points in her cancer journey.

When Barbara “Babs” Belk received the news that she had breast cancer, she had no “Why me?” reaction and not a single second of fear. Instead, her response was calm and curious: “Huh. Tell me more.”

Cancer among women in her family dates back 3 generations, so Belk, a Kaiser Permanente member and employee in Portland, Oregon, suspected that this moment might come one day and she was ready for it. Ready, because of her strong faith. And ready, because of her confidence in all that Kaiser Permanente has to offer, such as interconnected medical teams and systems that place the patient at the center for the best in care and compassion.

“Early detection prevented me from a more advanced diagnosis that would have required significantly more challenging treatment and recovery time such as chemotherapy and radiation,” said Belk.

“It was incredible to have Kaiser Permanente reach out to remind me that I needed a mammogram. The process between detection and surgery to prevent the cancer from invading my pectoral wall and lymph nodes and removing all cancer cells took place very quickly.”

She describes her extensive team of nurses, cancer specialists, surgeons, and anesthesiologists — as well as a cancer navigator, phlebotomists, imaging techs, and many others — as “an incredible machine with heart and soul. They treated me with love and kindness, and embraced my humor. I knew I was in excellent hands.”

Screening and diagnosis

Her journey began on May 28, 2020, soon after Kaiser Permanente began reopening clinics and services that had been temporarily closed in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belk received a phone call that she was due for a mammogram and there was an opening the next morning, which she took. Then, on June 7, she had a sonogram and breast biopsy, followed a few days later by a call informing her of her diagnosis of breast cancer. That same week, she had an MRI and met with her surgeon, Brenda Schmidt, MD.

“My surgeons discussed options, answered my many questions and concerns, and valued my opinions throughout the journey,” said Belk. “My nurses gave me easy-to-follow checklists that ensured I was prepared before and after surgery. Because of the connections between all of my care providers, in subsequent appointments I didn’t have to repeat everything because they were all up to date on my progress.”

Just 6 weeks after diagnosis, Belk had a double mastectomy at Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Oregon. Four weeks after that, Alex Gougoutas, MD, performed Belk’s first reconstructive surgery. She is receiving bimonthly procedures and will have a final surgery in December or January.

Now, doing exceptionally well, she thrives by jogging and cherishing time with her family and friends. She’s passionate about inspiring others who may be going through breast cancer or know someone who’s facing a similar diagnosis.

And her experience has encouraged her to share the importance of early detection.

“Please make time to get timely cancer screenings,” she says. “This includes mammograms for breast cancer, as well as screenings for colon cancer and prostate cancer. Taking these steps can not only make your diagnosis outcomes better, they can literally save your life.”