Social worker takes cancer diagnosis, treatments in stride

It is never easy to hear the words: “You have cancer.”

For Dana Letts, 81, the words created an image she will never forget.

“When you're diagnosed with cancer,” described Dana, “you're suddenly thrust into a very dark tunnel, disoriented, scared and unable to see any light around you.”

But thanks to the care and interactions with Erica McBride, DO, a general surgeon with Lovelace Medical Group, Dana was able to focus on beating cancer and getting on with her life.

“During the appointment after my biopsy, Dr. McBride gave me the news. She also told me that she sees light at the end of that dark tunnel. Most importantly, she helped me see it too. She believed that my return to the home, land and lifestyle that I loved was possible, and since she believed it and I trusted her, I believed it too,” Letts said.

Caring for others

Letts, who lives in the mountains of northwestern New Mexico, has spent a lifetime helping others. With a master’s degree in social work, she was a therapist for many years. She facilitated adoptions, ran a treatment center for abused preschool children in Kansas City and produced homemaker programs for seniors.

“When I moved to this beautiful area, I had no idea how I'd make a living,” recalled Dana. “As it turned out, I've conducted training sessions across New Mexico on how to run nonprofit organizations. I've also had the privilege of working with the Navajo Nation and in many Pueblo communities as an ‘outside evaluator,’ hired to assess youth programs funded by the state of New Mexico and the federal government.”

But it was an unexpected lump in her body that led Dana to other healthcare providers and ultimately to Dr. McBride’s office.

Diagnosis and treatments

“It is always difficult to tell patients that they have cancer,” said Dr. McBride, “and I am always nervous to tell them. But my patients know I am very straightforward and do not ‘sugar coat’ it, which they appreciate. They know that I am here for them and will do all that I can to ensure they get excellent cancer treatment.”

After hearing the cancer diagnosis, Letts and Dr. McBride discussed the next steps: surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, appointments with an oncologist, chemotherapy and rehabilitation. The plan was received well by Letts.

“The social worker part of me always watches how people treat all their patients, not just me,” said Letts. “Dr. McBride is fabulous. She respects one’s intelligence and capacity to listen and make decisions. She made me feel like she had all the time in the world to talk to me.”

Letts also had kind words for Kayla Bustamante, a surgery scheduler with Lovelace Medical Group. “She was the one stuck with walking me out after the diagnosis. I will never forget her kindness during the short time we talked. Kayla saw the light too and was so helpful in my gathering up the courage to take the next step.”

Letts traveled to Albuquerque for the surgery and stayed with a friend for nearly five months in order to complete six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments and then the rehabilitation sessions. Although she was sidelined for a period of time with pneumonia and COVID-19, Letts maintained her regular schedule of follow-up appointments.

“Every six months I see the oncologist and get CT scans, as prescribed. Around the same time, I see Dr. McBride who does digital checks on my cancer. I’m so happy that it’s completely gone.”

Through it all, Dr. McBride was the thread that held Letts together.

“She treated me as a respected partner in the process,” remembered Letts. “I’m someone who asks a lot of questions, so I always went in with my list of questions. She in turn gave me candid but caring answers. She really made the difference in being able to go home.”

Care from others

After the follow-up appointments in Albuquerque, Letts was finally able to return home.

“I live out in the middle of nowhere,” she said, “so when I walked in the front door, I felt my heart rate calm down, my breathing relax and my blood pressure stabilize. My friend had put together a group of 15 people to deliver dinner to me, which they did every day for three and a half months. People showed up to clean my house. Flowers appeared on the table. It was amazing!”

For Letts, it was very different to be on the receiving end of someone’s attention.

“I’m the social worker and have always been the giver - the one figuring out how to help others. So being the receiver was a new and humbling experience for me. It helped me realize that I am on a journey. We all are. Learning how to be a humble receiver of someone’s kindness is something we are all supposed to learn.”

Her journey also taught Letts a new way to look at each day’s opportunities.

“I now live much more in the present than I used to, much more intentionally,” she explained. “I’ve also added another layer to my decision-making. I’ve always made decisions that made sure everyone was going to be okay. But now, I also consider myself in my decisions. What will bring me peace?”

Undoubtedly, future visits to family in Northern California and her daughter’s family in Nashville, Tennessee will bring her a great deal of joy and peace. As for anything else, that future is undetermined.

“I'm now in good health,” Dana said. “I still have some decent people skills and I know I have more to give. It’s time for the next chapter. I don’t know what that's going to be exactly, but that’s okay.”


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For more information about the Lovelace Cancer Center, visit our website.