Sr. Therese Michele DeStefano (left), a patient at Chestnut Hill Hospital's Women's Center hold hands with Gail Linberg, a nurse coordinator at the Women's Center's Breast Program. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

Sr. Therese Michele DeStefano (left), a patient at Chestnut Hill Hospital’s Women’s Center hold hands with Gail Linberg, a nurse coordinator at the Women’s Center’s Breast Program. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Sr. Therese Michele DeStefano, 71, formerly of Chestnut Hill, describes her battle with breast cancer as a “journey into the heart of God” – a journey she could not make without the guiding light of people like Gail Linberg, nurse coordinator at Chestnut Hill Hospital’s Women’s Center Breast Program, or Linda Simmons, a certified nurse practitioner at the center.

DeStefano, a pastoral assistant at St. Aloysius Church in Pottstown, recalled how on Nov. 2, 2011, she received a call from the Women’s Center, 8811 Germantown Ave., asking her to come back for further testing because “they saw something.”

“No matter how much you read about cancer, when it’s you it’s different,” DeStefano said. “A numbness starts to happen. You are trying to hear but you start to zone out. It’s the unknowing.”

DeStefano was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma, an invasive form of breast cancer. After getting a biopsy and further tests, doctors decided she should have a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

DeStefano described the love and support she received at the Women’s Center and from people in the community as the “face of God in so many different ways.” She said that while she wasn’t grateful for the experience, it was a blessing in many ways.

She noted that cancer affects the whole person – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

“It’s not just having a Band-Aid on a cut,” she said. “It’s different than that. It changes your perspective on life.”

DeStefano, who earlier had taught at Our Mother of Consolation Parish School in Chestnut Hill, said often God’s will for us doesn’t always fit into our plans.

“I didn’t want the interruption,” she added, referring to being diagnosed with breast cancer. “I would say ‘God, you know I have to do this and this.’”

DeStefano said suffering forces us to stop and reflect on what’s important in life.

“All of sudden you find out that some things are much more important than others,” she said, pointing out that the experience allowed her to connect with people on a deeper level.

“Not only was it another experience, but I started to pray a different way,” DeStefano said. “My usual prayers seemed not to be my prayers anymore. You are really brought to your knees and you say ‘I need, I ask.’”

DeStefano said that’s when God sent Linberg to hold her hand, recalling how Linberg held her hand during her biopsy.

“It isn’t what they do,” she said. “It’s the way that makes the difference. Nothing is ever too much for Gail. She always has time.”

Dr. Jessica Santillano, a surgeon at Chestnut Hill Hospital, said that from the moment patients learn they have an abnormal mammogram, Linberg “is there to help them navigate through it, not only physically but emotionally.”

“One of the biggest things women come in here [Women’s Center] with is fear of the unknown,” Santillano said. “Gail helps defuse that in a way that is not always clinical. It’s caring and compassion,”

Linberg, who wanted to be a nurse since she was 5 years old, believes in the “power of touch.”

When asked why she offers to hold a patient’s hand during a biopsy, Linberg replied “It can be a very traumatic experience but knowing someone is there for you and they care makes a huge difference.”

A personal connection

DeStefano held back tears and struggled to compose herself as she recalled seeing Linda Simmons, the nurse practitioner in the doctor’s office at the Women’s Center.

“I looked over and saw Linda sitting in the office across from me,” DeStefano said. “I said, ‘Linda, do you have cancer?’ and she said ‘yes, I have the same thing you have.’ Then, my gosh, I started to cry. I don’t know what happened, but there was this heart connection. It was like something touched my heart.”

DeStefano said Simmons’ upbeat and cheerful personality has given her a lot of courage.

“It’s [breast cancer] is a really hard disease but it’s a disease that has lots of support,” DeStefano said.

She said that during her journey to recovery she not only experienced sadness, fear and compassion but also humor. She called it an essential ingredient to healing.

DeStefano’s eyes lighted up as she recalled one particularly hilarious moment. She was sitting in the waiting room of the radiation department wearing her highly fashionable flimsy robe with Michael, a male radiation patient who had throat cancer, when an advertisement for Victoria’s Secret’s new line came on television. They were chatting when Michael glanced up at TV screen.

“I said ‘Michael, don’t you look up at that – I am Victoria’s Secret,” DeStefano said. “Everybody in the office roared.”

She said every time she saw Michael afterward they both smiled.

“It was one of the highlights of my day,” she added.

While DeStefano’s battle with breast cancer is not over yet, she knows she doesn’t have to face the journey alone. Whether it’s a kind word from a stranger or the gentle embrace of a friend, DeStefano said God will guide her with the light of his love.

“God will speak to me and say, ‘you are on your way,’” DeStefano said.

Chestnut Hill Hospital works closely with the Linda Creed Foundation to provide free breast cancer screenings for uninsured and underinsured women. For more information, call 215-564-3700 to schedule a free mammogram. For more information about the Women’s Center call 215-248-6100.