Nicole Woodley, Our Patients Inspire Us, Every Day!
Like all busy parents, Nicole Woodley tries to keep her days structured, organized and put together with a plan. “It’s hard for me to give up control,” Nicole jokes. “But sometimes you encounter situations in life, and you have to say okay, this is out of my hands.”
For Nicole, that something was a breast cancer diagnosis at 32 years old. In March 2013, Nicole was the mother of three children and a pastor at the Lutheran Church of Hope West Des Moines campus. “At the time, my kids were four, five and six – and yes, that was as fun and frantic as it sounds,” she says. Nicole and her husband were leading full, busy lives, filled with family and ministry. “Then one day I found a lump,” Nicole recalls. “I scheduled an assessment with my primary care physician as soon as I could to be safe.”
After Nicole’s primary physician validated what Nicole suspected, it looked like a simple surgery would take care of the tumor. “Before we could move forward though, we were still waiting for the official pathology report, which would show some more definitive information.” However, the report came back showing a much different – and scarier – reality. “There were seven tumors in my left breast, and my heart sank,” Nicole shares. “At that point, the solution was pretty clear to me, but not necessarily something easy to comprehend. I had a double mastectomy scheduled so I wouldn’t have to make that choice twice and hoped that would be the end of that.”
Once Nicole had recovered from surgery, she planned with her doctor for further treatment, and it was at that point she was referred to Mission Cancer + Blood. “I had the most amazing support system through my church, in particular a group of women who had survived cancer and were mothers of young children. Their love and information were invaluable. In fact, it was through them that I got a recommendation to see Dr. Thomas Buroker.”
Dr. Buroker was already a familiar name to Nicole, as he had treated her grandmother’s breast cancer decades earlier. “I knew I was in the best hands. Dr. Buroker is an amazing cheerleader, such a kind and considerate person. I felt confident and safe as his patient and about him as a person.”
Along with providing exceptional care, Dr. Buroker and his team helped Nicole navigate the more emotional side of cancer treatment. “It’s in my DNA to take care of others, I suppose,” Nicole says. “But my husband, Dr. Buroker and his team, they all kept reminding me my only job right now was to take care of myself. Not only that, but to stay in the present. Don’t think about tomorrow, but just focus on what was going on right in front of me and what I was dealing with in that moment.”
Nicole’s treatment was exhaustive. She underwent months of near daily radiation treatment following a round of chemotherapy. “Everyone I met at Mission became part of my family. In fact, I still think of them as family,” she says. “I really got to know the infusion nurses. I told them all about my kids, I learned about their kids, we talked about just day to day life stuff – we told each other everything. Sometimes my best friend would come with me to my treatments, and she would joke at how close and connected I had gotten with the nursing team. But how could I not have? I saw them more than anyone else.”
Despite Nicole’s natural positivity and ability to connect with others, the road felt long and bleak at times. “Unless you have gone through it yourself, it’s so hard to describe how much cancer zaps you, how much the treatments zap you. Some weeks it felt like all I did was sleep and go to treatments. If it wasn’t for my church community and my family, I couldn’t have done it. They took care of me, of my family, in a way that was so deep and so profound that it moves me to this day. It will move me forever.”
After Nicole had completed her cancer treatments, Dr. Buroker helped prepare her for the next phase of recovery. “I was glad he was so focused on keeping me in the present, because if I had known everything, I was going to go through it would have been totally overwhelming. I don’t know if I could have taken it.”
For example, chemotherapy had caused Nicole to enter menopause at age 33. Nicole says that Mission was right there with her, helping to manage the transition. Then shortly thereafter, Nicole began to experience severe menstrual bleeding and went back to her OBGYN. “I went through a battery of genetic tests, and that’s when I tested positive for Lynch syndrome,” Nicole recalls. Individuals with lynch syndrome have a high likelihood of developing colorectal cancer, uterine and ovarian cancers, so she wanted to be as proactive as possible for these high-risk indicators.
She went back to Mission and worked with Dr. Morton. “His approach was very different than Dr. Buroker, but it was exactly what I needed at the time. Dr. Morton is quieter and softer spoken, he is very detail oriented and methodical. I really appreciated his approach.”
In 2015, Nicole underwent a full hysterectomy including ovary removal, and began her annual colonoscopy exams. “During all of this my radiation technicians kept saying, ‘you need to live your life right now. What do you want to do? Whatever that is, you need to go do it, because there are no guarantees,’” So Nicole and her husband did the last thing she ever thought they would do – move back to her husband’s hometown of Clarion, Iowa. “When we first got together, I would joke, there’s no way I will move to the country and farm. Yet after all I went through, after all we went through as a family, I wanted a slower pace of life.”
Since moving to Clarion, Nicole continues her relationship and ongoing care with Mission through Dr. Sandre. “I really value Dr. Sandre as a physician and feel so confident in her expertise,” Nicole says. “Her calm demeanor, deep knowledge and her care and consideration for her patients are amazing. She always takes time to answer my questions and empowers me with my health.”
Today, the Woodleys have a 5,000 head hog operation and farm 1,000 acres of row crops as fourth generation farmers on the Woodley Family Heritage farm. The family put in significant work refurbishing the barn, getting their farm started and settling down. In addition, they since welcomed two additional children through adoption to their family, and serve as co-pastors of First Lutheran Church in Clarion. “So perhaps this pace of life isn’t slower at all,” Nicole says with a laugh. “But it’s exactly what we needed.”