MODESTO, Calif. — When Anne Abruzzini of Turlock, Calif., had a dream in August 1997, she had no idea it would save her life.
“I was dreaming, and I knew I was dreaming,” she said. “I was seeing this woman in medical clothing with brownish-blond hair. I was telling her I had a pain in my breast. I didn’t in real life, and I’m thinking, it’s silly of me to be dreaming this. At the same time, I thought, this woman doesn’t look anything like my girlfriends who are nurses, so why am I dreaming this?”
Then she woke up.
“It was Sunday morning and we were to go to church, and I shared my dream with my husband,” she said. “He reached over and felt a lump. I had no idea it was there.”
The next day, she was in her gynecologist’s office. He referred her to a surgeon, who saw her at the last appointment that Friday.
“I know the surgeon was tired and had been quite busy that day,” Abruzzini said. “He wanted to let this go, and I pressed him for a biopsy. He did a biopsy in his office that evening. When I came back into the room for the results, he told me I had Stage 3 cancer. It was a fairly large tumor. He wanted to do surgery within a couple of days. I said I wanted a second opinion.”
The surgeon sent her to an oncologist. She went to the appointment with her husband, Michael.
“He was professional and answered all my questions,” Abruzzini said. “After he left, my husband said, ‘He seems pretty good.’
I said, ‘I don’t think he’s the one for me.’ My husband asked why. I said, ‘If I’m going to die from cancer, I want someone who cares. Even if they can’t save me, I want someone with compassion.’”
So she talked with a girlfriend who also was fighting cancer.
“I had been supporting her, not realizing I had cancer myself,” Abruzzini said. “She referred me to her oncologist in the (San Francisco) Bay Area.”
The local medical experts had wanted her to have a complete mastectomy — removal of both breasts — plus aggressive and extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments following surgery.
“I preferred a more conservative therapy: less chemo and removing the lump to start with,” Abruzzini said. “I think I had more courage because of the dream and feeling that I was watched over by God. When I told that to the oncologist, he asked if I would mind him referring me to a colleague, a surgeon over at (University of California at San Francisco). I said that would be fine.”
The surgeon was able to work her in that day so she and her husband wouldn’t have to make another trip.
When Dr. Laura Esserman walked into the room, “I was shocked,” Abruzzini said. “There was the woman in my dream. It was so vivid, the feeling of deja vu, that I told her about seeing her in my dream, and that this was where I was supposed to be.
“I asked her if she had faith in God. She said she believed me, that these things happened, and she did believe in God. I felt someone who had faith would care. That needed to be No. 1. Next would be, of course, medical training and skills, and she had gone to Harvard and Stanford and was in charge of all the surgeons, male and female, there. And third, bedside manner, and she had a wonderful bedside manner.
“Laura Esserman saved my life.”
Pain puts focus on God
Abruzzini had three rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by the lumpectomy, which was done between Christmas and New Year’s in 1997.
“They didn’t quite get all the cancer, so they had to do a second surgery to get ‘clear margins’ in January (1998),” she said. “They even had to scrape cancer off the chest walls; that’s how deep it was. But she stretched herself as a surgeon to save my breasts. She realized how important that was to a woman. I never did have to have reconstructive surgery.”
There was one glitch: After being released from the hospital following the second surgery, Abruzzini and her husband ate dinner near the hospital. Then she discovered she was bleeding from the incisions. She called Esserman, who was in another surgery at the time and talked with Abruzzini through a phone held to her ear by an assistant. The surgeon told the patient to return to the emergency room and wait for her.
“They had emergency surgery and couldn’t put me to sleep because I had eaten, so I was wide awake,” Abruzzini recalled. “She was cauterizing blood vessels and she said, when she saw my tears coming down, ‘How can you do this? You must be in so much pain.’ Since my late teens I had written to Mother Teresa, and she (or another nun) always answered. I told the doctor, ‘Mother Teresa said, “Never are you closer to God than when you are in total pain.”’ I told her, I’m so focused on God. That’s how I’m handling the pain.’
“I also told her that my grandmother had always taught us to offer our sufferings in this world for others to be saved. When she heard that, she began to sing to me. She sang two songs, one in English and one in Spanish. She was just so compassionate and caring. I said, ‘Laura, not only are you the top doctor at UCSF, but you were trained at Harvard and Stanford, you’re married to a lawyer and have two lovely children, and you sing, too?’ She chuckled.”
Esserman, director of the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center, is nationally known as a breast cancer surgeon, one who is on the cutting edge of developing new, more effective ways to treat patients.
“I am so glad that she had a great experience,” she said in an e-mail last week. “I appreciate the value that personal beliefs can provide to help patients recover.”
When asked if she believes in miracles, Esserman responded, “I believe that what makes for miracles is when everyone comes together to do everything they can to help patients. These acts of kindness are what make up the fabric of everyday miracles.
“In addition, it’s important to combine scientific data with patient preferences and help them to find the solutions that work for them.”
Calls cancer a ‘blessing’
Abruzzini was clear of cancer for 10 years. In January, doctors found a small cancerous spot “about the size of a fingernail” on an MRI; Esserman again was the doctor who removed it.
“I’ve been doing just fine,” Abruzzini said.
Her sons, Adam, 22, and John, 19, were in elementary school at the time of her first surgery; they’re now students at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
“The cancer was a blessing to remind me of the importance of being a mom at home, caring for my children,” Abruzzini said. “They were able to cook and clean, and they would come up to ask me when I was going through chemo what they could do for me. It made me know that they would be OK, that God would watch over my children.”
She believes the dream was given for much the same reason.
“I often wondered why (I had the dream). I think God wanted me to be here to tell people that miracles don’t just happen in the Bible. They happen every day around us. We just have to pay attention. Knowing that these things happen today is to encourage us. When this happened to me, I knew God was watching over me. I know he wanted me to have the dream to encourage others, maybe to give someone hope.”