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A bright, cheerful voice comes through the phone. “Can I call you back? I’m just in the middle of an exercise workout.”
Nickole Drum, 44, is back to challenging herself in the gym instead of facing the challenge of Hodgkin lymphoma. She’s grateful that the expert care she received from the Lifespan Cancer Institute has let her resume the joys of her life: being a wife and mother, teaching, volunteering at her son’s school, and working out at the gym.
“I’m just glad to be back to normal,” said the Portsmouth resident, who exudes energy as she recounts her cancer journey.
In an odd twist, a breast MRI discovered Drum’s cancer – but the tumor was not in her breast.
Drum had a traditional mammogram that led to a follow-up MRI at Newport Hospital because of dense breast tissue. It revealed a suspect area, so she was referred for a second MRI at the Anne C. Pappas Center for Breast Imaging at Rhode Island Hospital. No breast tumor was found, but the scan did identify a mass behind her sternum.
Using additional scans, physicians determined that Drum had a tumor in her thymus gland, a part of the lymph system. Thoracic surgeon Steven Milman, MD, removed her thymus at Rhode Island Hospital on Jan. 30, 2017, and pathology examination confirmed Hodgkin lymphoma.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 8,260 Americans – 3,610 of them women – are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 39.
Drum is fortunate that her cancer was discovered early, at Stage I. She said she experienced none of the typical symptoms that appear when Hodgkin lymphoma is more advanced: swollen lymph nodes, fever, weight loss, night sweats.
At the Lifespan Cancer Institute at Newport Hospital, Drum underwent four cycles of chemotherapy over the course of 14 weeks.
She appreciated being able to see her hematology oncologist, Alessandro Papa, MD, and have her chemotherapy infusions at Newport Hospital, just miles from home. “Enabling patients to have their treatment close to where they live and work lightens their burden during a most challenging time,” Papa said.
When the nausea, vomiting, and headaches triggered by the chemo hit Drum hard, her team kept working to find a combination of medicines to quell the side effects.
Her husband Jason, a Navy lieutenant, is her rock, Drum said. “He would take our son Keller where he needed to go, he did everything … cook, clean, dishes, laundry.” She said one of the tough moments for Keller, a fifth grader at Portsmouth Middle School, “was when I didn’t come down for supper – because we always eat together, and the night of my first treatment was the first time I missed eating with them.”
Her family back in Missouri, where she and Jason grew up, gave her lots of support, as did friends from Virginia Beach, where the Drums were stationed before coming to Portsmouth in 2015, and their new Rhode Island friends.
Drum is a woman of deep faith, which she drew upon during the low points. She said she feels the many prayers offered by family, friends, and fellow church members were heard.
Drum said she benefited from the personalized care she received at Newport Hospital, along with comforting touches such as hand massages while she had chemotherapy infusions. The hospital’s clinicians and staff “know your name when you come in. You don’t want to feel like a number, and I definitely didn’t feel like that here,” she said.
“We do everything we can above and beyond the actual treatment to make it as comfortable as we can. The collective knowledge of our experts and access to leading-edge therapies helps achieve the best possible outcomes," said Alessandro Papa, MD.
Drum is comforted that her social worker, Diane Passantino, LSW, still touches base now and then. Drum keeps her phone number handy in case she needs support.
Taking care of patients’ emotional needs is a vital component of their care, Papa said. “We do everything we can above and beyond the actual treatment to make it as comfortable as we can. The collective knowledge of our experts and access to leading-edge therapies helps achieve the best possible outcomes.”
Drum feels the Lifespan Cancer Institute at Newport Hospital combines “big-city” expertise with compassionate, individualized care.
A competitive gymnast as a teen, Drum is now back to exercising at the John H. Chafee Fitness Center at Naval Station Newport. She was overjoyed to be able to return to teaching, to working out, to volunteering at Keller’s school.
“I haven’t really had that ‘moment’ that people talk about” – the realization that you’ve emerged from the shadow that cancer casts over your life – though Drum knows it may still come.