The Rocky Journey to a New, Happier Normal

Nov 17, 2022


Everything in Elizabeth Naylor’s life was normal. The St. Helena resident was grateful for this fact as she traveled to see a longtime friend who had undergone a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. They had not seen each other in over 22 years. On one evening during her visit Elizabeth woke in the middle of the night and knew something was wrong. She recalls, “I just knew something was wrong.” Elizabeth stopped to take in the moment trusting her intuition. When she got home she received her diagnosis. And suddenly, nothing was normal again.

From "fine" to facing a serious fight
At first, Elizabeth was told “everything is fine” by her healthcare provider, who explained that chemotherapy treatment wasn’t needed. She had a mammogram and subsequent biopsy then lumpectomy and thought treatment was behind her. However, during a post-operative follow-up appointment a week after her lumpectomy, Elizabeth learned that she had a more aggressive form of breast cancer with larger tumors, known as macrometastases.

Her shock was immediate and involuntary. “I screamed so loudly, I think everyone could hear me,” Elizabeth says. She felt her mask fill with vomit. Suddenly, the recommendation to forgo chemotherapy made the situation much more serious. The provider’s reason why they didn’t inform her of the severity earlier? "They didn’t want to upset me." Understandably, Elizabeth was deeply shaken by the news and angry that she hadn’t been told the whole picture of her health. But she knew who she could turn to.

Finding a sense of hope
Living in a small town has its benefits. One of those benefits is knowing people who genuinely care. Oncologist, Dr. Ethan Schram, a member of the team at Adventist Health St. Helena’s Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center, is known for a compassionate, dedicated approach to patient care—and he and Elizabeth were acquaintances. Dr. Schram reached out when seeing Elizabeth’s social media posts stating she was in shock about her diagnosis. He told her, “We need to talk.” His outreach was a surprise to Elizabeth as they weren’t friends yet. Up to that point, she hadn’t encountered this kind of care. Dr. Schram would subsequently, ask to see her records. After discussing her case with colleagues, Dr. Schram told Elizabeth she needed to be seen immediately.

“I asked him, ‘Am I going to die?’” Elizabeth remembers. “And he said, ‘not if I have anything to do about it!’”

Dr. Schram introduced Elizabeth to Marlene Lennon, NP, Adventist Health St. Helena’s breast navigator, a breast cancer survivor herself. During an hour-long meeting, Marlene walked Elizabeth through her diagnosis and treatment options step-by-step, even though Elizabeth was not yet an Adventist Health patient. Marlene was straightforward and led with the facts. “She gave me a sense of hope,” Elizabeth describes. “I felt like there could be a solution.”

Elizabeth chose to change providers and insurance plans so she could continue her care at Adventist Health St. Helena. “I reached out to Dr. Schram to let him know that I was officially an Adventist Health patient,” remembers Elizabeth. “And he told me to get ready, because things were about to get real.”

Facing fear with personalized care
Dr. Schram hadn’t been exaggerating. From that initial screening session with Marlene through her final chemotherapy session at the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center, being real has been a continued way of life for Elizabeth.

At the beginning of her treatment, she was no longer angry. She was scared. Lucky for her, she was in great hands. Breast surgeon, Dr. Charles Elboim, removed 21 cancerous lymph nodes. Dr. Schram led her chemotherapy treatment. Marlene continued to provide guidance and support. And the team of nurses and staff at the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center surrounded her with their compassionate, personalized care.

When Elizabeth completed her treatment, she joined in the tradition of ringing the gong prominently placed in the Cancer Center’s lobby to celebrate. Not shy about her feelings, Elizabeth hit the gong with vigor, surrounded by the staff and family members who had supported her along the way.

Finding a new normal—and a sense of purpose
However, after going home, Elizabeth remembers feeling hollow. “I felt alone and was missing a sense of purpose. But I’m not one to sit and wallow!” Elizabeth says. Instead, she soon dove into a newfound love—supporting others facing a cancer diagnosis.

Elizabeth begins her journey as chief executive officer at Crush Cancer Napa Valley this October, replacing founder Rayellen Jordan, who was just starting to search for a successor as Elizabeth was looking for a new mission.

Elizabeth’s drive and determination to make an impact in her new role are palpable. “I want to be a voice, a place of support and source of information for those who are starting their cancer journey,” explains Elizabeth. “Cancer saved my life, and I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.”

Elizabeth’s journey wasn’t easy—the rocky and unsettled start, transition of providers and diving into surgery and chemotherapy have forever changed her. But thanks to the care she received and her determined spirit, Elizabeth has a new, better definition of normal. “I’m in the happiest place in my life right now,” she concludes.