Lung cancer patient is thankful for NCH team

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Colleen Virginelli was enjoying the finer things in life – like gardening and rowing her boat in local lakes – when she received devastating news in the summer of 2014.

The northwest suburban grandmother had developed a lingering cough and was feeling fatigued for several months. She decided to visit her primary care doctor, who ordered X-rays and a blood test.

Two days later, Virginelli learned a mass was detected in her lung, and she needed a CT scan immediately. “Everything happened so quickly,” Virginelli says. “I was stunned.”

Virginelli’s doctor referred her to Neeraj Desai, M.D., an interventional pulmonologist on staff at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH), and Stephen Nigh, M.D., medical director of Radiation Oncology, at NCH.

Virginelli reviewed the results of the CT scan with Dr. Desai, who then performed a biopsy. Virginelli learned she had stage III lung cancer with lymph node involvement. Dr. Desai then scheduled an MRI and PET scan, which determined that the cancer was, in fact, contained to the chest area.

“At this point, my husband and I were overwhelmed,” Virginelli says. “Dr. Desai was very thorough and compassionate. We met with the NCH nurse navigator, Juli Aistars, who explained the process of scheduling all the appointments I needed.”

Following the tests, Virginelli was ready to start battling the cancer. She scheduled an appointment with Dr. Nigh, who created an aggressive treatment of daily radiation treatments for six weeks, combined with chemotherapy, she says.

“We usually only have one chance to completely eradicate tumors like this and hopefully provide a cure,” Dr. Nigh says. “Her cancer was a locally advanced, stage IIIB lung tumor, which required chemotherapy at the same time as the radiation.”

Beginning in September of last year, Virginelli made the trip to NCH daily for her chemotherapy. She felt comfortable making the 20-minute drive to NCH instead of going downtown for treatment. “My car was on auto pilot to NCH,” she recalls. “The radiation technologists were so supportive and empathetic. They always answered my questions.”

Virginelli was grateful for the team approach by doctors, nurse navigators and radiation technologists at NCH. “I am so thankful for the care that I received at every point along the way,” she says. “As much as I hated the diagnosis, the care, support and treatment I received at NCH was wonderful.”

Working together as a team is important for patients with complex diseases, such as lung cancer, Dr. Nigh says.

“Most patients gain a certain level of confidence when they see the physician members of their team communicating frequently and sharing in the responsibility of providing great care,” Dr. Nigh says. “The nurses, therapists, navigators, dieticians and social workers also play a vital role.”

After her first round of chemotherapy, Virginelli went through another battery of tests, which found that the tumor was shrinking, but still present in her lungs. She began her second round of treatment in February.

Determined to beat the cancer, Virginelli continued chemotherapy treatment through the first half of 2015. After her second round ended in July, Virginelli hoped for the best when she came back for her doctors’ appointments.

Her follow-up appointment was a day she will not soon forget. “There was no sign of cancer,” Virginelli recalls. “That news made me feel wonderful. I had a wonderful support system to help me through this.”

Virginelli continues follow-up appointments with her doctors and has her goals set for her first milestone – remaining cancer-free on the two-year date after her initial diagnosis. In the meantime, she now enjoys the little things. She tends her garden on sunny days and has even taken her boat out. She recently rowed two laps around Lake Arlington.

“Being on the water is such a peaceful place,” she says. “I am so excited to do that again.”

  • Neeraj Desai
  • Stephen Nigh


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