Bryan Quinlan knows cars, and his wife, Karen, knows cancer. For years Bryan owned and operated a towing business that kept him on the road a lot, ready to respond to calls 24/7. Karen Quinlan, RN, MSN, OCN, has been a nurse at Doylestown Hospital for more than 18 years, specializing in cancer care. Now she serves as Director of Cancer Services at Doylestown Hospital. She also lost her 43-year-old brother to melanoma in 1997. She never imagined cancer would hit hard again, even closer to home.
“I never thought this would happen,” says Karen. “Nobody does.”
Photograph by H. Scott Heist
Because of her job, Karen knows the importance of preventive screenings. She’s witnessed many incidences of cancer caught late, when it’s hardest to treat. So for Bryan’s 60th birthday a few years ago, she gave him the “gift” of a colonoscopy and chest X-ray. For years, she “couldn’t get him to sit still long enough to get those screenings,” she says. Bryan adds, “She knows I’ve dealt with cars all my life, not medical situations. I didn’t have time to be in a doctor’s office.” Bryan is an Army veteran who survived serving as a paratrooper and infantryman in Vietnam.
Bryan agreed to the tests and went in first for his colonoscopy. The doctor discovered a large mass. The very next day Bryan went in for his chest X-ray. He had smoked for about 25 years in his younger days, and quit about a decade ago. Doctors discovered a spot on his right lung. They wanted to take another look in about three months to see if it grew. In the meantime, Dr. Bruce Derrick removed the mass from Bryan’s colon. It was determined to be pre-cancerous. “They got it just in the nick of time,” says Bryan.
It was a difficult and emotional few months. Karen’s father died in early Spring, and Bryan’s father lost his own battle with cancer in October. The follow-up scan of Bryan’s lung in November showed the spot on his lung had grown. He was diagnosed with Stage 1B lung cancer. “He was scared,” Karen says. And so was she. “I know how gut wrenching dealing with cancer can be. You just imagine your worst nightmare coming true.” Dr. Derrick performed a lobectomy, removing the upper lobe of Bryan’s right lung.
Karen knows that symptoms for lung cancer usually don’t show until later in the progression of the disease, at about Stage 4. Caught early, lung cancer is more treatable than ever before. With such a serious diagnosis, the couple sought a second opinion from doctors at network partner the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. For nearly 20 years, Doylestown Hospital has been a member of the Penn Cancer Network, a select group of community hospitals affiliated with The University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center. The treatment plans from Penn and the Doylestown doctors matched and there was no question the couple would stay close to home. Karen felt fortunate “to have all these resources at my fingertips.” She is thoroughly familiar with the physicians, staff and services at The Cancer Institute and trusted the team to take the best care of her husband. “I leaned on my staff,” says Karen. “They really are amazing nurses and excellent caregivers.” Dr. Mitchell Alden advised an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that was to last 16 weeks.
In the meantime, a source of joy came into the Quinlan’s life. Just four days before Bryan’s father, Walter, died, the couple’s first grandchild was born. “It was such a blessing,” Karen says. Gravely ill in the hospital, Walter was given a photograph of Jake. “He was so proud,” remembers Bryan.
In turn, Jake became a source of strength during the difficult months that followed. “I had my ups and downs,” says Bryan, uncharacteristically forced to take things easy because of the fatigue. “I was just whooped.” Through Karen, Bryan was familiar with some of the staff and infusion nurses. They could tell he was scared, and helped him through the process. “I couldn’t have asked for better care,” he says. “Everybody was just great.” As for his wife, Bryan says she was “a trooper all through it--she stuck by me.” Bryan knew he had to remain positive. “Do not give up hope,” he urges. In the end, little Jake helped Bryan ceremoniously ring the Cancer Institute bell that signals the end of treatment. “It was beautiful, very moving,” recalls Karen.
His treatment over, Bryan returned to the hospital for scans of his lung every few months, and eventually just once a year. He has some residual neuropathy in his hands and feet from the chemo, but otherwise is doing quite well. “I’m really on the lucky side,” he says. “I’m very grateful.” He stresses the importance of screenings. “Don’t be afraid, just do it because it could save your life.” In the past, Bryan would smoke the occasional cigar while on the road. After his ordeal with lung cancer, he was tempted once by the thought of a cigar. The thought that followed was, “Do you want to see your grandson again?” He left that cigar tucked into the truck’s visor as a powerful reminder.
For Karen, the experience gave her another, more personal perspective towards cancer that she relies upon in her work. “I think more than ever I’m empathetic towards patients and all the fear and the heartbreak they go through,” she says. She knows the value of support for patients and their families. In addition to facilitating a number of support groups, The Cancer Institute provides an onsite social worker one day a week to guide patients and their loved ones through the process of treatment, recovery and life after cancer.
Now retired from the towing business, Bryan looks at life differently these days. “Every day is a blessing,” he says. He enjoys regular visits with his two daughters and grandchildren and fishing trips to Lake Nockamixon. “We cherish each other and life even more,” adds Karen. “When you go through something like that it makes you stronger.” The couple makes an effort to vacation together once a year — something that did not happen when he was constantly working. They recently celebrated their 42nd year of marriage.
Now more than ever, Bryan appreciates those birthday gifts from his wife. “She saved my life.”