Mattie Gillis of Brunswick is fiercely independent. The 42-year-old has raised three children, works full time as a truck driver, and has no problem taking care of herself. So when she began to have abnormal menstrual bleeding in the summer of 2015, she wasn’t about to let it disrupt her life. The bleeding quickly became heavy and Gillis went to the emergency room at her local hospital.
“They did an ultrasound and thought they saw a cyst on my ovary. They thought the bleeding might have been coming from the cyst. But it kept getting worse,” said Gillis.
She followed up with her gynecologist who, unfortunately, had a different diagnosis. He thought the bleeding was caused by cervical cancer. The disease begins in the cervix – the lower part of the uterus -- and is often detected with a Pap test. Gillis accepted the news with her typical “I-can-handle-this” attitude.
“I was not floored by the diagnosis because I knew there was definitely something wrong. But there was no point in getting upset. I thought, I can’t let the cancer control me. I have to control it,” said Gillis.
She was referred to gynecologic oncologist James Burke, M.D., at the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute (ACI) at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. He confirmed that Gillis had stage 1 cervical cancer and recommended a robotic-assisted radical hysterectomy. On July 9, 2015, Gillis put her health in the hands of Burke and a device called the da Vinci Si Robotic Surgery System.
Burke made five small incisions in Gillis’ lower abdomen, each less than 1 inch long. He inserted a tiny camera in one and surgical instruments in the others. While watching a 3-D magnified view of the surgical site, Burke controlled the instruments through the robotic arms on the da Vinci platform. The tools mimicked his hand movements with the tools inside Gillis’ body. It was a complex, six-hour surgery. Burke removed a large tumor, her right ovary, her uterus, her cervix, and ligaments and tissue surrounding the organs. He left one ovary in place to continue producing hormones and prevent Gillis from going into immediate menopause.
Because the procedure was done robotically with very small incisions, Gillis had almost no pain and was able to return home the next day. She healed from surgery and went back to work. But her treatment was not over. Burke referred Gillis to radiation oncologist Aaron Pederson, M.D., at the ACI. Gillis was to receive radiation therapy in the pelvis area five days a week for seven weeks. The radiation would kill any remaining cancer cells and prevent new cancer cells from growing in the area.
Over the next seven weeks, Gillis worked at her job from 6 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. each day. Then she would drive 80 miles to Savannah for radiation, and 80 miles back home again. It was a challenging routine, but Gillis was determined to get through it. She arrived for radiation treatment each day with a smile on her face and she credits her care team with keeping her positive.
“I had an awesome team. Dr. Burke and Dr. Pederson were amazing. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I could’ve done it,” said Gillis.
When her seven weeks of radiation ended, Gillis began a survivorship plan that includes check-ups with her doctors every three months. Her advice for anybody who is newly diagnosed is simple:
“Stay strong. Stay focused. Pray. And don’t let cancer take control of you. You take control of it.”
Because she listened to her body and took control of her own health, Gillis is looking forward to a healthy future.