A touching reunion at 36,000 feet
Delta airlines flight attendant Pam Taylor was passing through the cabin on a flight from Bermuda to Boston when she recognized one of the passengers – and to Pam, this was no ordinary passenger. “I started crying,” she recalls, “I said, ‘this lady saved my life.’”
The passenger was Dr. Rebecca Yang, a surgeon with Lahey Hospital & Medical Center’s Comprehensive Breast Health Center, who had diagnosed and treated Pam for a rare form of breast cancer called Paget Disease. “Dr. Yang was sitting at the window, and the people next to her got up so I could give her a hug,” Pam said.
But Pam wanted to give even more. She grabbed a bottle of champagne from the first-class cabin, wrapped it, and gave it to Dr. Yang – who coincidentally was flying home after participating in a breast cancer screening event. “I was just floored,” Dr. Yang remembers. “It made my day. I was thinking, this is why I do what I do. We were both tearful.”
A Rare Type of Cancer
Pam’s story began with a small scab on her right nipple that she initially attributed to some sort of injury. When she told her gynecologist about it, the doctor suggested a mammogram and an ultrasound, but both were normal. When the scab didn’t go away after a short time, she was referred to Dr. Yang for a biopsy.
Paget Disease is a rare form of breast cancer that results in breast cancer cells migrating into the skin of the nipple and areola as the first presentation. It can affect both women and men and can be associated with underlying breast cancer.
Hearing a diagnosis of cancer can rock your world, Pam says. But Dr. Yang “sat down and explained it all to me, then she assembled a team of oncologists and others. She said it was fortunate that it was caught in this early stage.”
Paget Disease sometimes may be treated with a lumpectomy, but Pam opted for a double mastectomy to lower her chances of recurrence to virtually zero. Dr. Yang performed the surgery at Lahey, and then Pam had an immediate breast reconstruction at the same time, performed by Lahey plastic surgeon Dr. Lifei Guo.
A Sense of Confidence
Pam was fortunate to have the strong support of her two sisters and her mother, who accompanied her to appointments. She and her family were touched by the strength they drew from Dr. Yang, whose warmth, professionalism, and expertise helped instill a strong sense of confidence and hope.
“When I first met Dr. Yang, I liked her immediately,” Pam said. “I felt very comfortable. She was calm and soft-spoken and pleasant. She explained everything to me and gave me the choices.”
Dr. Yang said she approaches cancer treatment in a realistic yet positive way. “I try to be hopeful and positive whenever possible,” she explains. “A positive attitude makes a world of difference. I’m very realistic and don’t give false hope, but in this day and age, many breast cancers are very treatable and curable.”
Dr. Yang’s path to medicine took some interesting turns. She initially planned to pursue a career as a ballet dancer and received a scholarship to the Houston Ballet, the fourth-largest professional ballet company in the U.S. But she was also accepted at Princeton University, and couldn’t resist the intellectual challenge that a career in medicine would offer.
She found her calling during a clinical rotation in breast surgery. “I always wanted to be more focused on women’s health, and I fell in love with the practice and overall care in breast surgery,” she recalls. “I love not only taking care of patients, but also the relationship that develops year after year. After a while we become friends, catching up on each other’s lives. I feel so blessed for what I do as a surgeon.”
Care and Caring
A resident of Haverhill, Massachusetts, Pam Taylor has been a Delta flight attendant since 1988 and has flown throughout the U.S. and Europe. Delta is strongly committed to breast cancer awareness and support, something that has taken on new meaning for Pam since her own diagnosis. She has a photo of herself in front of one of the Delta planes that was painted with a pink ribbon.
When Pam hugged Dr. Yang on the plane, they both felt the strength of the bond that has grown between them. They see each other once a year for Pam’s checkups, and end each visit with a hug.
Dr. Yang says a hug is a natural extension of the relationship that develops with her patients. “Most surgeons see a patient once and not much after that,” she points out. “But with breast cancer a relationship builds, and you can nurture it and keep it. I love my job and the patients I work with. It goes beyond disease and surgery.”
Like Dr. Yang, Pam is a strong proponent of regular screenings for early detection of breast cancer, and she is committed to supporting others fighting a similar battle. “You’ve just got to live with the cards you’re dealt, and be strong,” she said. For people with a cancer diagnosis, “I just want to wrap my arms around them.”
Lahey Health offers the latest in breast health services, including mammography, generic counseling and risk assessment. Click here for information on all of our services.