Nurse Practitioner Tamra “Tami” Groothuis, 45, always thought it would be too sad and too emotional to work with cancer patients. A nurse practitioner since 2005, Tami has been a registered nurse since 1998.
Following her father’s battle with acute leukemia and her Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis in 2014, she changed her mind. “I wanted to help cancer patients, and I started working for Cancer & Hematology Centers of West Michigan (CHCWM). I still work for them part-time in the Survivorship Program,” said Groothuis.
Tami sought her care at Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center, where she had surgery and chemotherapy. Lacks Cancer Center is part of The Cancer Network of West Michigan, a joint venture between Mercy Health and University of Michigan – West, which leverages the combined resources of the two award-winning health systems.
In the Fall of 2020, a recurrence of breast cancer was discovered in Tami’s lymph nodes. She and her cancer team needed to address this development quickly. Her lymph nodes were removed, and Tami received chemotherapy and radiation therapy prior to endocrine therapy.
While she was receiving monthly injections to suppress her hormones, Tami developed headaches, and they weren’t subsiding. One morning following a terrible headache, she went to Mercy Health’s Emergency Department.
“The Size of a Strawberry”
“A CT scan showed that I had a tumor, and it was suspected to be metastatic breast cancer in the left cerebellum. The tumor was about the size of a strawberry,” she said. “I was devastated that my breast cancer had returned to my brain.”
There was some good news, though. An MRI indicated that the tumor was operable, and a full body PET scan showed that the cancer had not spread to other parts of her body.
A friend Tami met at a cancer support group — one who had brain tumors from metastatic breast cancer — gave Tami the name of a specialist at Henry Ford who had been involved in this friend’s care. Tami set up a telephone consultation with that same specialist who reassured her that she could stay in Grand Rapids for the treatment she needed.
A Team Approach
Mercy Health Radiation Oncologist Derek Bergsma, MD, in consultation with the specialist at Henry Ford, decided to give Tami three CyberKnife treatments — a type of noninvasive radiation treatment — prior to her brain surgery. The purpose was to decrease the risk of the cancer coming back and/or injury to the brain compared to doing radiosurgery after removing it.
Tami was the first patient at Mercy Health to have CyberKnife treatment prior to brain surgery.
She was thrilled that the team was thinking outside the box. “All of my physicians — from my Medical Oncologist Dr. Thomas Gribbin, to my Radiation Oncologist Dr. Derek Bergsma to my Brain Surgeon Dr. Bryan Figueroa collaborated with each other. I felt like I was in good hands.”
Tami had a positive attitude about her radiation treatment involving her brain. “The CyberKnife treatment itself is not bad at all. You don’t even know your brain is being treated. I never felt terrible in the mask. The team was so nice, and they were pulling for me.”
Tami also praised all who were involved in her care. “They are kind and get right back to you. They understand how waiting for results can be so difficult. They helped with the logistics of coordinating my care, which can be so complex.”
Reasons to Celebrate
With a PET scan confirming that the cancer was nowhere else in her body following the CyberKnife treatment, Mercy Health Neurological Surgeon Bryan Figueroa, MD, was scheduled to perform Tami’s brain surgery to remove the tumor.
Outstanding news followed her surgery: “The post-op MRI showed no more cancer!”
Thrilled with the results, Tami wanted to do all she could to help with her recovery. She thought it might be best to forego a family trip that had been in the works for more than a year. “I really wanted to go but figured I couldn’t.”
Before her diagnosis, the Groothuis family had planned a vacation to national parks out West to take place about three weeks after Tami’s surgery (a trip that had already been rescheduled from 2020 due to the pandemic).
“My doctors said there was no reason not to go. I was able to wean myself off the post-operative steroids, and I had a wonderful time. I wasn’t 100 percent, but I was able to hike and be with my family.”
Tami is immensely grateful for happy memories like the one she had out West. Taking one day at a time, she is committed to creating more happy memories.
Now four months following surgery and two scans later, the cancer has not recurred. “The more scans I have like this, the greater the chance that I can actually be cured!”
With a natural sense of humor, Tami laughed when she mentioned she must remind herself not to panic each time she gets a headache. “I say to myself, ‘You know, people have headaches who don’t have brain tumors.’”
Touching the Lives of Other Cancer Patients
Tami admits, “I felt a little lost for a while after my surgery. I went from a working person to a professional patient.”
With treatment behind her, Tami found that being at home and caring for the family was rewarding, but she was ready to do more. Her positive attitude and desire to help others gave her the additional focus she was looking for.
“I participated in the Live Strong program at the YMCA in 2014, and I liked it so much that I became a coach. I get to help other survivors carry out what I encourage them to do through my work in the survivorship program!”
Three Words about Her Care
Tami is extremely grateful for the remarkable care she received at Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center. Her selfless spirit is reflected in her actions and words. “They went above and beyond for me. My care was compassionate, excellent, and timely.
“I am so thankful that we have CyberKnife in Grand Rapids at Mercy Health. I’m a wife and mother, so I appreciate that I didn’t have to travel for treatment.”
A courageous fighter, her faith has been a stronghold for Tami. She is hopeful about her future. “I believe I’ll go to heaven, but I don’t want to go right now. I feel like God isn’t done with me yet.”