Sanford doctor and cancer survivor stresses continuing care

It's safe to seek care, even during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Shirlene Smook smiles and stands in a white coat and stethoscope.

Sanford Health family medicine specialist Shirlene Smook, M.D., primarily operates out of the Sanford Aberdeen Clinic, and has always preached the importance of check-ups and listening to your body.

Because she knows the importance firsthand.

Treating patients, then becoming one

In 2017, after treating patients for over 25 years, Dr. Smook became one. She was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.

“There was the initial shock and then dread. Knowing what I knew about breast cancers, 98% are very treatable. Triple negative is a bit harder to treat,” she said.

Listen: Podcast: Why a tumor board is critical to breast cancer care

What makes triple negative breast cancer trickier to treat? There is a less favorable diagnostic outcome, she says.

Roughly one-third of triple negative breast cancer patients have recurrence. If a patient has recurrence within the first three-year-time period, “it’s not as good of a diagnosis,” says Dr. Smook.

“If you get past the window of three to five years, then the good thing is that triple negative generally does not come back after that time period” she adds.

Dr. Smook is currently in year three.

“So, for me, it’s a waiting game for a couple more years. But, otherwise things are going well.”

‘They were with me every step of the way’

Originally, she and her husband elected to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. That’s where both breasts are removed in an effort to treat and prevent breast cancer. They thought this was the best the best option, due to the risk of recurrence.

However, she says Sanford Health radiation oncologist Michele Lohr, M.D., advised her to go another route.

“Dr. Lohr sat me down and told me that I’d have a better outcome if I did either a lumpectomy or a partial mastectomy,” she said.

She’s says this proved that while she’s faced a terrifying diagnosis for years, her caregivers have been “with me every step of the way.”

Continuing care

Had she not routinely been going in for checkups, her diagnosis might’ve been caught too late, she says.

“My cancer was not palpable. I didn’t feel it. My husband didn’t feel it. It was found on the mammogram,” said Dr. Smook.

She says this proves why it’s critically important to continue care. Even during the pandemic.

“Statistics are showing people are avoiding care, and missing new diagnosed cancers. This puts one at greater risk of later stage cancer at diagnosis. I believe that people need to get back on their regular schedules for getting their screening mammograms. Be safe.”

Related: Safe, convenient mammograms: Tour a mobile screening unit

And, if you have concerns, don’t ignore them. It’s safe to seek care.

“Clinics and hospitals are able to keep you safe. The risk of you getting coronavirus is very little. Much less than your risk if you were to miss something because of a delay.

“A delay in diagnosis is one of the biggest issues in health. We find things too late.”

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Screenings, Coronavirus, Women's

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