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How My Optometrist Helped Me Beat Cancer

My eye care story started on March 22, 2014. It was my 27th birthday and I took a selfie, which is not something I typically do. Upon examining my photo, I realized that my left eye looked ‘puffy’. I took an allergy pill, but several days later the puffiness remained and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

I couldn’t let it go, so I asked a friend for a recommendation for an eye doctor and got an appointment with Dr. Terry Lawson, a Tulsa optometrist. He did all the regular checks and discovered that my left eye was indeed much weaker than the right. He thought the irritation might be from the weaker eye working hard to keep up with the stronger one. We ordered special glasses, expecting them to take about two weeks to arrive.

While I waited, however, things got worse: my eye got puffier and I had severe headaches. When I returned to Dr. Lawson’s office to get the glasses, Dr. Lawson and I realized immediately they wouldn’t be the solution to my problems. Dr. Lawson referred me to a specialist: Dr. Jason Ellen.

Before seeing Dr. Ellen, things started to really get scary: there wasn’t just puffiness around my left eye, it was swollen. In fact, there was so much swelling that the skin at my hair line was red (later we learned it was from busted blood vessels). My headaches literally made me want to pull my hair out and my eye was a noticeable “feature” about me now. One day while I sat at my desk at work I could no longer take the pain and drove to urgent care. Basically, I was told it could be something extremely serious, and if it got worse I should go to hospital. They sent me off without much discussion and a “have a great day.”

At that point, I felt like I was being treated like a number, not a person with urgent medical needs. I really needed someone to care about my well-being, devote some time to my health issues, and fight with me.

Enter Dr. Jason Ellen! When I arrived at his office with my husband, it was Dr. Ellen’s day off, but he stopped by to examine me anyway. He talked to me about my symptoms and how I was feeling. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was probably just like any other exam to him but, to me, it was life changing. He stepped back and said, “We are going to figure this out, no matter what.” He requested blood work covering a wide range of things and an MRI. It was scary to have someone taking my health issue so seriously, but it gave me hope we would finally get to the bottom of this.

When the results came back, the blood work and the MRI indicated that my body was struggling and fighting with something, but it wasn’t clear what it was. Dr. Ellen quickly made an appointment for me to see a rheumatoid arthritis doctor to scan for lupus. The doctor quickly ruled that out, and I felt defeated. I certainly did not want lupus, but a positive diagnosis would have at least given me some answers. In the meantime, my left eye was bulging, my headaches were incredibly severe, I was losing weight and sleep had become something foreign.

Dr. Ellen called me almost immediately after that appointment and started to give me hope again. He had already talked to the lupus specialist. He told me not to give up and that he already had another plan for me to see Dr. Chamberlain, an ophthalmologist in Tulsa. I pulled over and cried, not because I felt hopeless but because I had someone fighting for me. I wasn’t just a number; I wasn’t someone he was passing off, he genuinely cared.

By the end of June, I was in Dr. Chamberlain’s office for the first time. He examined my eyes and discussed possible causes. He wanted me to try prednisone for a week and see how the inflammation reacted. We tried it and while it did bring much needed relief it wasn’t the result he was looking for. We decided the only way to know for sure was to do a biopsy. We got it scheduled and Dr. Chamberlain was able to get two different samples, doing a small puncture and cutting the eye lid and going behind the eye. We were optimistic.

We got the results quickly and I went back to have my stitches removed and get the results of the biopsy. The first sample came back clean but it was the 2nd sample that told the truth of what was happening.

I still get emotional when I think about this day. It was a day that changed my husband and my life forever. Dr. Chamberlain sat me down and told me that I had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I stayed calm because, honestly, I had no idea what those words even meant. He explained that there were treatment options in Tulsa or somewhere like MD Anderson.

That’s when it hit me: “wait—I have cancer?”

I’ll never forget Dr. Chamberlain sitting in front of me – knee to knee as I processed this life-altering news. He said it full of grace and understanding. I believe his heart may have been little broken to have to say the words out loud.

We had our answer – our devastating answer. Dr. Chamberlain had given us his cell phone number in case we had any questions. It wasn’t until a day or maybe it was hours later that I called him just to confirm if what I had heard was true between tears and gasps of breaths.

When I went to get a second opinion at MDAnderson, the news I received got even worse. I was diagnosed with grade 3B transforming follicular lymphoma and it was extremely aggressive. From my June 20th MRI to my new scans at MDA the cancer had tripled in size and I was going to lose my eye, if not my life, if we didn’t act quickly. I started chemo: August 7, 2014. Over the next few months I received 4 spinal tab chemo treatments and 4 intravenous chemo treatments along with 20 rounds of radiation.

Four long, hard months later, the doctors told me the treatment was working. On December 5th, 2014 I shared the news that I was in 100 percent remission. Today, I am nearly 4 years’ cancer free and my husband and I are expecting our first child.

My story is about a lot of things. But certainly it is about an optometrist who realized I needed additional, specialty care – not just a pair of glasses. It is about two doctors (an optometry specialist and an ophthalmologist) who said that my well-being was bigger than an eye issue. That patient care was their highest priority and they were going to fight to get the answers I needed.

Dr. Ellen and Dr. Chamberlain helped saved my life. In my household, they are heroes of the highest caliber.

When Shawn Miyahara started to have puffiness and pain in one of her eyes, she never thought she would be diagnosed with cancer. Today, with the help of her optometric physicians and other doctors, she is cancer-free.

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