“It came as complete surprise to me,” she notes. “I was a busy mom – with three children and going through a divorce – and was also busy working full-time. I knew women were supposed to go for their first mammogram when they turned 40, but I was so busy I just never found time to do it.”
She finally went to the doctor after not feeling well for a couple of months. “Something was just off,” she recalls, “I figured it was just my hormones reacting to all the stress at the time. The doctor routinely ordered a mammogram, and then I thought it was a little odd when they called me back ‘for more pictures.’ Within hours, my doctor was telling me I had breast cancer advanced to almost Stage 3.”
“I was devastated,” she says, “I just wound up running out of the doctor’s office in shock. He called later and said ‘Debbie, you cannot run away from this. You need to get help right away.’”
Her journey to becoming a survivor began with six months of chemotherapy, followed by eight weeks of radiation and finally, a lumpectomy to remove the mass in her breast.
“It was a really ironic time,” Debbie notes. “I was sitting in the mini-bus shuttle provided by the Calaveras Cancer Support Group to take patients to treatments in Lodi thinking well, I guess it’s just my turn to take this bus.”
Debbie had helped establish the support group a couple of years before she received her diagnosis. At that point, she had been working at the hospital for several years and her responsibilities included working in the Physical Therapy Department. She recalls, “I could see how cancer patients were struggling to regain their physical strength while also dealing with the impact of stress and uncertainty. One of them happened to mention to me that a support group might really help. That was 18 years ago.”
Her life-long spiritual journey is based on helping others, so stepping up to help cancer survivors came naturally. And before long, her work in physical therapy sparked a desire to go back to school to become a Certified Massage Therapist. She began the Massage Therapy program at Mark Twain St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1998, which involved in-patient and outpatient therapy.
Debbie was the face of the support group, organizing volunteers and gathering donations – including the minibus taking her to treatments in 2005. She was off work for about a year, recovering and spending any free time taking real estate classes. “Massage therapy is physically demanding,” she says. “I knew I could not do it forever.”
She was back to work at the hospital in 2006, but it wasn’t too long before the hospital underwent organizational restructuring and the massage therapy program had to be discontinued. By then, Debbie had many loyal clients and they followed her to a new office in Angels Camp where she has now been practicing for over 10 years. And, her vision of a real estate career has come true – she closed her first escrow in July. Commenting on her journey as a survivor, Debbie says, “Life is so short we all really never know our last day on this beautiful earth. I can only say, stay true to your Faith; follow your heart and believe in yourself; and, love your family and community.”
In 2016, she was elected to the Mark Twain Health Care District board of directors. On June 5, 2018, residents of Calaveras County voted to approve Measure A, which authorized the Mark Twain Health Care District (MTHCD) to enter into a new lease with Mark Twain Medical Center (MTMC), and a restructured affiliation with Dignity Health for another 30 years. “I ran because the hospital is so important to the community and it has been a major part of my life – I worked there, my mother retired from there, I have lots of friends there. I want to look out for them, and the community.”
Debbie continues as the driving force behind the Calaveras Cancer Support Group, inspiring its members while mustering community support and raising awareness. “The importance of raising awareness about breast cancer just can’t be emphasized enough,” Debbie notes, “especially among young adults. They need to get on it, get those mammograms – even before the age of 40 if there is a family history of breast cancer.”
“I’ve insisted my girls get theirs early,” she adds. Her daughter Rosalie, 35, is an Echocardiogram Technologist (ultrasound technicians specialize in using echocardiogram technology to produce images of patient's hearts) at MTMC and in Sonora; and Angie, 29, is a dental hygienist. Both launched medical careers from early experience in the ROP program at Mark Twain Hospital. Debbie’s son, Mario, 34, is a police officer; he and his wife Stefany have a son, Drake, and daughter Raena.
She adds, “Men are especially urged to attend Steps to Kick Cancer. Most people do not realize that both men and women are at risk for breast cancer and cases in men are just as deadly unless diagnosed early. I’m so excited that MTMC is recognizing Breast Cancer Awareness Month in this special way. Steps to Kick Cancer is a gift to our community.”
Seating is limited and reservations are required for the complimentary sit-down lunch. Reserve now; contact Nicki Stevens, MTMC Manager of Marketing & Business Development, at 209.754.5919.
About Mark Twain Medical Center
Founded in 1951, Mark Twain Medical Center is a 25-bed, critical access hospital providing inpatient acute care, outpatient services and emergency services. The Medical Center’s Medical Staff represents a broad range of specialties that ensure access to high quality medical care in a rural community. In addition to being a major provider of health services, Mark Twain Medical Center is also one of the area’s largest employers. More than 300 people are employed at the hospital and its five Family Medical Centers. The Medical Center is a member of Dignity Health and a part of CommonSpirit Health, one of the largest nonprofit health systems in the nation dedicated to advancing health for all and serving communities in 21 states. Mark Twain Medical Center is also on Facebook.