Lisa Tomasino’s Story
“It’s just one of those things that doesn’t have to define your existence”
Springfield Clinic oncologist Namita Vinayek, MD, says about her patient Lisa Tomasino: “Her attitude is a big asset for healing. What we do is medical, but the support system and attitude of a patient play a big role in healing and living their best life.”
Dr. Vinayek has only had Lisa as a patient for five months, but already Lisa’s positivity has made an impression. She’s not the only one who is impressed with Lisa’s positive attitude in the face of a cancer diagnosis. In fact, when Lisa’s partner, Jonna Cooley, was asked to describe Lisa, “positive” was the very first word she thought of.
“I really don’t spend that much time in that negative space; it’s just too uncomfortable. I just have to find the positive in something,” Lisa says.
Lisa has always had an interest in helping other people, and she’s applied that desire to serve in two completely different directions in her life. Her first career was in social work as a manager for a not-for-profit. After 17 years and feeling burned out, she went back to school for her esthetics license and certificate. Now, she helps people as a licensed esthetician in her self-owned shop, Shanti’s Skin Care Studio, which has been open now for four years.
“Interestingly enough,” as Lisa would say with a smile, she had specialized in oncology esthetics because of a friend who had cancer and was experiencing skin issues from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She says “interesting,” because Lisa herself was diagnosed with breast cancer May 2017 and has been treating herself ever since. “Now I have knowledge firsthand. It’s really difficult as a cancer patient because every day you’re being affected by what chemo’s doing to your skin. Helping my clients and now me is really, really important to me. The best part of my job is watching people walk out with a smile on their face.”
“I’ve always been a healthy person, have always had my regular mammograms,” Lisa says, still smiling although the conversation has turned to her cancer diagnosis,” and unfortunately…they missed this.”
Lisa’s doctor, Angelique Rettig, MD, with the Center for Women’s Health would always joke “See you next year!” when Lisa would get her yearly check-up. Lisa rarely got sick; in the year before her check-up with Dr. Rettig, she hadn’t even been to Prompt Care. Lisa got her regular mammogram, and nothing seemed amiss.
A little over a month later, Lisa had lost about 20 pounds and suddenly noticed a lump in her right breast. Lisa went back in to see Dr. Rettig, who scheduled another mammogram for her. During that second mammogram, nothing was showing up out of the ordinary, so Lisa had the radiology technologist feel the lump. She agreed something wasn’t quite right. Another technologist came in, suggested a sonogram and finally discovered the source. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “I think we’re looking at lobular carcinoma.”
Lobular carcinoma is a specific type of breast cancer that mimics breast tissue, making it difficult to detect. Lisa walked out to the waiting room to meet Jonna. “I’m the one who’s always sick, you know?” Jonna says. “When she had to go back in for this second mammogram, I wasn’t even going to go, because it’s never anything. But something made me go.”
Jonna took one look at Lisa’s face and asked, “What’s wrong?” Lisa replied, “They think it’s breast cancer.” Both women went back to work, wondering what this meant and what was next. “She’s at home and I’m in my office,” Jonna says, “and I know we’re both googling. We’re both trying to figure out what this means.”
“I walked out of the 800 building,” Lisa says. “I remember it was raining; it was the end of April. I sat in my car in the parking lot and just looked out at life. I thought, ‘Wow. This is not what I expected.’”
Lisa’s pathology report came back next with some scary results. Out of 21 lymph nodes they tested, cancer was in 18 of them. “I think any time you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it’s pretty terrifying,” Lisa continues. “Because you don’t know what that means for the long term. And everybody’s cancer is different.” Both Lisa and Jonna were trying to stay positive, but were wondering what the next steps were going to be. “I lost both my parents to cancer,” Jonna says. “I felt very scared, but I didn’t want her to know that.”
Lisa’s treatment plan included five months of chemotherapy followed by radiation treatment. She was also going to have a mastectomy to try to prevent recurrence. Lisa thinks that she maybe had it a little better than many women, as she had been looking into breast reduction before her diagnosis. “Not that this was the way I wanted the reduction,” she laughs. “But I was really happy to be losing the size. For me, there was no option. The cancer was in the right breast, but I had the option to do both. I said absolutely to both; I didn’t want to have to deal with the possibility of a recurrence in the other side.”
“The day of her surgery was horrible,” Jonna remembers. “She was in surgery forever.” And afterwards, Jonna—a PhD-holder who teaches education at University of Illinois-Springfield—had her medical skills tested. “I had to do a lot of things I never dreamed in a million years I would have to do,” she says. “Lisa came home, and she had drains in. I said, ‘Okay, I can do the drains, but I could never pack a wound.” She and Lisa both laugh. “Two weeks later, I was packing a wound.”
“I will admit, I was more afraid of chemo than I was at all of the surgery,” Lisa says. “I have always been a quick healer and had a high pain tolerance, so I wasn’t too concerned about the surgery. But chemo scared the crap out of me, because it’s toxic waste going through your system.” However, she made it to and through her first treatment and realized it wasn’t going to be as bad as she thought. “I went in with my big girl panties on, Jonna was with me, and I just handled it. It was a mindset—If I wanted to beat this, I had to follow their recommendations, and this was the best way for me to overcome this cancer. This was going to be my job, in some way, shape or form, for the next five months.”
Something good that came out of the chemo treatment was the people Lisa got to meet in the infusion room. “There is not one person in that room who doesn’t have remarkable hope and just remarkable energy and positive ideas for what their life is going to be.” She says that while she is glad to be done with treatment, she will miss her care team and support group within the infusion room at Springfield Clinic.
Jonna isn’t the only member of Lisa’s support system team. Lisa has a daughter, Erin, who recently graduated from UIS and lives in Florida. “We’re best friends!” Lisa says. “She’s the absolute best thing in the whole world that I’ve ever done. She’s my success story.” Erin’s future also became uncertain when her mother was diagnosed—Erin was supposed to move to Florida for her new job after graduation, but she wasn’t sure if she should when Lisa was diagnosed a month before graduation. “I said to her, you need to go,” Lisa says. “You need to move to Florida and continue with your plans. You need to have a wonderful life. I’m going to be just fine.”
Along with her daughter, Lisa has a mother and sisters, as well as Jonna’s whole family to support her. And as someone who must always put a positive spin on things, Lisa says, “Our family is kind of spread out all over the country—so, we have a lot of nice places to visit.” But after Lisa’s surgery in June, she and Jonna had a constant stream of family and friends visiting them all summer. “I can’t imagine doing this without that strong backbone. I feel like I have this whole tribe of people who are in my corner every day of the week.”
Dr. Vinayek thinks the strong support system has played a vital role in Lisa’s healing and recovery. “Because of her partner’s and daughter’s support, they gave Lisa more strength to get through this journey,” Dr. Vinayek says. “She felt motivated to stay strong and fight this thing off.”
Lisa also felt supported by her care team at Springfield Clinic. “I just felt like I was in great hands.” She thought Dr. Vinayek and her physician’s assistant, Andrew Guardia, PA-C, were progressively-minded and answered Lisa and Jonna’s questions every step of the way. “Dr. Vinayek went over everything with me from the very beginning, right down to the simplest of details. They never wavered from the plan, and they very much believed that this was the best course of action for me.” She loved her mastectomy team at General Surgery and reconstruction team at the Center for Plastic Surgery, too.
Jonna also felt confident in Lisa’s doctors and nurses, especially those involved in the stressful surgery and the home care required afterwards. “The people at Springfield Clinic were amazing to show me what to do and answer questions. I just felt like Lisa was in the best place she could be.”
Living with cancer has tested—but not broken—Lisa’s ability to be positive. And when she has those panic moments, Jonna is there “with a hug” to help her out. “There are times when I just have that moment of, ‘Oh my god, this is my reality,’” Lisa says. But, together with Jonna and her other supportive family members, Lisa gets back into the mindset she wants to be in.
“It’s just one of those things that doesn’t have to become a definition of your existence. It can certainly become simply part of who you are, but it doesn’t have to define you.”Lisa finds also that putting on a good face for her clients at Shanti’s Skin Care Studio who are also struggling helps her move on past her bad moments. Her clients, as she says, don’t get to see her bad moments, as she just wants to be there for them when they come to see her.
“All my days are good days, in one way, shape or form. I might have a bad moment or a sad moment or a worrisome moment—but I don’t have bad days. There’s just no value in that.”Jonna says that many things have changed since Lisa’s diagnosis, but not all of the change has been bad. “I used to work 12- to 14-hour days, and now I try to come home so we have more time together,” Jonna says. The women had a friend once who used to approach complaining saying, “I don’t know why people complain about stuff all the time. Are they making a chemo treatment appointment?” So Jonna and Lisa used to use that phrase when dealing with difficult things. “We used to say that to each other,” Jonna says. “’Well, you know, at least we’re not making a chemo appointment—and then we were.” Jonna says that this attitude change has been positive, bringing them closer together and making them not worry so much about irrelevant issues.
Lisa has a high chance of recurrence but, if it happens, both Jonna and she plan to approach it with the same positive mindset that they approached this diagnosis. “I look at everything differently. I look at everything differently,” Lisa says with gravity. “I value the people in my life—my family, my friends, my pets—differently. Everything. Everything looks different.” But while Lisa says cancer has given her a new perspective on life, it has made her bonds with the people she loves even stronger. “It’s remarkable how many people you have in your life that you know matter to you, but maybe you didn’t take the time to tell them. And how many people you considered to be acquaintances that suddenly become very good friends.”
Jonna and Lisa are looking forward to the end of treatment so they can return to their travels, including more visits to Lisa’s daughter. They plan to celebrate with a trip to Mexico in February once radiation treatment has ended. While they have spent 18 years together having fun and laughing a lot, they plan to enjoy their time together even more and “not sweat the small stuff” anymore.