Patient Story

Debra’s story: Cancer only delays, not denies, post-retirement plans

Debra Gillooly and her husband were just a few months from their post-retirement dream of traveling across the country in a motorhome. 

The Cumming, Georgia, resident went to the Emergency Department at Northside Hospital Forsyth on Nov. 3, 2021, when she had a hard time putting sentences together. That led to her being admitted for a computerized tomography, or CT, scan and MRI which led to a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and brain. 

Despite the shocking news — which came only days after a wellness check — Debra said, “My experience at Northside Hospital was the best experience I have had to date in any hospital. The two doctors, Dr. Edmund Simon and Dr. Harpaul Gill, were both very informative and explained all of my options. 

“The nurses were very attentive and caring. One nurse I remember was Nurse Ryan, as he treated me like I was special and always put a smile on my face. I really can’t say enough about the excellent care I received.” 

Dr. Simon, a radiation oncologist with the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute (NHCI) in Cumming, gave Debra radiation on her lungs and Gamma Knife® treatment on her brain. 

“I have had double-contrast MRIs every three months since, and this year I will be able to go on every four months,” Debra said. “The Gamma Knife treatment was successful in reducing the size of the brain tumor and I continue to see Dr. Simon and the nurse practitioner, Erica Lydon, after each MRI. 

“It is always a positive experience and my husband and I feel hopeful when we leave his office.” 

Debra and Dr. Gill, an oncologist at NHCI Atlanta Cancer Care in Cumming, discussed her treatment options for the lung cancer. Debra expressed her concerns with chemotherapy after watching her mother’s experience with bone cancer in the mid-1980s. 

“Knowing how I felt, Dr. Gill had me try a new targeted therapy drug, which was taking eight pills daily,” Debra said. “At this time I met Emma Shin, the oncology social worker for Dr. Gill. She was so helpful in many ways and very caring. 

“Emma helped with paperwork to get assistance from the drug company for the targeted therapy. She made phone calls on my behalf and talked to me and my husband about all that we were facing. 

“Dr. Gill talked to me more than once about the changes in chemotherapy over the years and when the targeted therapy did not work as well as he would have liked, I agreed to try chemo. I’m grateful that he continued to talk about options for me. 

“I would also like to mention Barbara Burk, physician’s assistant to Dr. Gill. I see her at most of my appointments and I always leave there feeling upbeat and positive.” 

Debra had six treatments every three weeks, featuring Keytruda and two types of chemotherapy — one for an hour and another just for 10 minutes. 

“As rough as it was, it was definitely better than anything my mother had gone through and was actually better than the targeted therapy in some ways,” she said. “The first week after chemotherapy was not fun, but I always had 1 1/2 to two weeks of feeling mostly like myself.” 

She’s since started a maintenance routine, going for treatment only every three weeks for Keytruda and the 10-minute chemotherapy session, which has decreased the recovery periods. 

“From the time of the diagnosis,” Debra said, “I have felt totally loved and blessed and believe I have the best family and friends a person could ask for.” 

Since leaving the hospital, Debra’s had her family around more, including time with three adult sons — one now living in New Hampshire, another in South Carolina and a third serving in the U.S. Air Force in England — and other relatives from across the country. 

“For the first time in many years, we all spent Thanksgiving together, and for the very first time since my sons got married and had families of their own, we all spent Christmas together,” Debra said. 

Those relatives and friends have made sure to check on Debra and her husband throughout her cancer journey. 

“I know how it feels to watch someone you love go through this and it breaks my heart that my husband and children have to experience this,” she said. 

But the illness didn’t deny Debra and her husband their retirement dreams. In recent months, they’ve hit the road in the motorhome they purchased just before her diagnosis. They’ve been to New Hampshire, seen the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, visited the French Quarter in New Orleans and even motored on historic Route 66 in Oklahoma and Texas. 

“Next we are on our way to the Okefenokee Swamp to see alligators,” Debra said. “We’re going kayaking between the cypress trees and then on to St. Augustine, Florida. We have been filling up a map of the United States with the places we have been and are now up to 20 states that we have both visited and spent the night in, plus seven other states we drove through and will go back to at a later date. 

“I’m looking forward to making it out west to see the Grand Canyon and all of the amazing places in Utah.” 


* The health story shared here may portray atypical results of survival for this type of cancer, given its severity and stage. Atypical results are considered surviving a cancer that has less than a 50% five-year survival rate. Patients should consult an expert to discuss specific treatment plans and the possible outcomes before making medical decisions.


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