Lost and Found

Winter Haven’s Chris Lonton Describes Her Journey With Breast Cancer and the People Who Keep Her Going

photos by JOE DELUC

When Chris Lonton checked into Gessler Clinic in Winter Haven for her regular mammogram in December 2015, she didn’t think twice. She would go in, get the exam, then leave.

Little did she know that this was the first step in a long journey that would lead her through some of the darkest moments of her life and change her in surprising and delightful ways. Along the way, she found a community, one that continues to support her and gives her the opportunity to support others.

But it started that first day.

“I didn’t think anything about it,” she says. “I had been doing a pretty regular exams, but I never went to the doctor all that much. I had always been healthy, so when I went to the exam, I didn’t think much of it.”

Even when the clinic called her for another exam, she didn’t think twice. “I thought something was probably wrong with the machine,” she says. “I never even thought it would be something else.”

This time, though, it was different. The way the staff was discussing things with her, she could tell something wasn’t quite right, she says. “But still, I kept thinking, ‘It’s not me, this isn’t going to happen to me.’ ”

Then it was the biopsy. Then the diagnosis.

“When he told me that I was positive for cancer — that’s all I heard,” she says, “I didn’t hear anything else.”

She could see that the doctor was talking, telling her about the size and about plans of action, but it didn’t matter. “I knew he was talking, but it was like he was speaking to me from space,” she says. 

When she called her husband after the appointment, reality began to set in.

“He sort of didn’t believe me,” she says. “I mean, he was in shock and was having a hard time believing. That was the only time I ever cried through this whole ordeal.”

The diagnosis came on her 50th birthday — “I tell people it was a birthday gift,” she says with a laugh. It wasn’t until much later that she would realize the gift’s benefits.

The diagnosis kicked off a series of challenges that came one after the other. She elected for surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Each step presented its own obstacles.

On the night before her surgery with Dr. Vincent Carifi at Heart of Florida Hospital, her husband was hospitalized and diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. The couple spent the day of the surgery in separate hospitals. 

As she prepared for her chemotherapy, she met Dr. Hassan Ebrahim from Winter Haven Hospital. 

“God bless that man, he really helped me through the process,” she says.  “He was patient and answered all my questions and talked through the process, but left the decision up to me.”

She talked to her husband’s doctor, Dr. Ashish Shah, who was battling his own cancer at the time. He encouraged her to do the chemo. “He said, sure your hair is going to fall out, but it’ll grow back,” she says. “It was important to take that step to be sure.”

After chemotherapy, she went straight into a radiation treatment. The process wasn’t easy— physically or emotionally. She went through every emotion, including depression, but as she faced each obstacle, something else happened. She found support and encouragement that made each step bearable. In August 2016, less than eight months from her diagnosis, she finished treatment. She has since been cancer free.

“Everybody involved in my experience has been great,” she says. “When you’re facing something that scary everyone should have people who are there for you.”

Three years on the other side of her ordeal, Lonton is still singing the praises of those she met, remembering their acts of kindness.

She recalls seeing Dr. Ebrahim and his family at a cancer walk in Lakeland. There were two nurses who sponsored a massage for her during a difficult time. She was given materials from a conference she was unable to attend. The list goes on. These little touches helped, she says. They were little gifts that made things more bearable. 

The people around her have also helped transform her from patient to caregiver. Her husband, who was diagnosed with a blood cancer the same year she beat breast cancer, is currently in remission but has been left without the use of his legs.

“It’s hard and can be overwhelming,” she says. “That’s why I keep in touch, they still support me.”

Now, as she passes through Winter Haven Hospital going to patient-caregiver groups where she now offers her story as a help for others, she still sees the people who have been there for her. They stop and ask her how she is doing and how they can assist. It’s these little touches, her little group of encouragers, she says, that lets her know she can make it through this challenge, too.

She easily recites them by name. “Dr. Carifi was my surgeon, Dr. Shah was my friend who also helped me along the way,” she says. “Dr. Hassan Ebrahim and his team and Dr. Inder Bhutiani and his team were my rock. There is always a special thank you to Beth Burgess who is Oncology Nurse Navigator, and Deb Schulte, manager of cancer programs and data services facilitator. Every cancer patient should have people like these in their lives.”

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