By Josh Jarman
Cancer does not discriminate. As countless families have discovered over the years, the dreaded disease pays no attention to age, gender, personality type, or occupation when it affects the lives of loved ones.
That’s why Dr. Anne-Corinne Beaver, a beloved physician and general/ breast cancer surgeon at Watauga Surgical Group in Boone, NC, was not shocked by the irony of being diagnosed with breast cancer last November. Instead of asking, “Why me?” she asked, “Why not me?” Her positive attitude and unwavering faith in God are what led her to fully rely on her colleagues at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS) to get her through one of the most difficult trials of her life.
Dr. Beaver was born in Nuremberg, Germany. Her father, a physician and orthopedic surgeon in training, was stationed there in the US Army. As a child, Dr. Beaver and her siblings appreciated their mother’s uncompromising commitment to keep Dad’s work at the office and family time sacred at home.
“We always waited until Dad got home to have dinner together as a family,” she said with a grin. “Some nights we ate very late! But, we were together and enjoying each other. We are very close.”
After the family moved back to Johnson City, TN, the Beavers purchased an olive green Volkswagen camper which they used to explore the United States and abroad. Dr. Beaver was moved by the diversity and various needs of the different people they met along the way. It later came as no surprise to her parents, who also served as her Sunday school teachers, when she expressed an interest in medical missions.
As a high school senior, Dr. Beaver left home for her first mission trip to Zambia. She marveled at how patients would travel for days on sleds dragged by cows in order to receive treatment at the hospital. During that time, she also learned how to live without electricity and running water. “The only hard part was taking showers,” she joked. “You would have to take a bucket with you to the river while keeping a close eye out for hungry hippos and crocodiles.”
A life-changing trip
Between college, medical school, and her residency program, Dr. Beaver completed several more medical mission trips in Belize, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Asia. “I think the tipping point for my decision to pursue general surgery took place while I lived and worked with Dr. Richard Bransford and his wife Millie at Kijabi Medical Center in Kenya,” she said. “Each time I would scrub into the OR with him, I appreciated the fact that he did so with humility and a desire to serve others. His compassion, intelligence, and vision for improvement impressed upon me. Ironically, the Bransfords live in Boone today.”
In 2008, after serving two years at Mountain Home VA Healthcare System in Johnson City, TN, Dr. Beaver received a job offer she could not refuse. What attracted her to the position at Watauga Surgical Group most was the fact that every provider in the group shared her passion for medical mission work both locally and abroad.
“I think it is important to keep your eyes wide open, to realize who all is around you and to acknowledge that wherever you are today, there is a mission field,” she said. “Our mindset at Watauga Surgical Group is to approach each patient with respect and kindness and to provide them with exceptional care served with compassion.”
Over the years, she has worked closely with Watauga Medical Center and the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center to provide general surgery and breast cancer treatment for countless patients in the High Country. During that time, she has and continues to serve as ARHS’s Cancer Liaison Physician to the American College of Surgeons – Commission on Cancer for Approved Cancer Programs. In addition, she serves on the Breast Center of Excellence Committee, Cancer Committee, Oncology Service Line Committee, the Surgical Services Committee at Watauga Medical Center, and the ARHS Foundation Board.
“On the morning of November 30, 2017, I noticed something very subtle in my breast,” she recalled. “I actually went into the office early that day and did an ultrasound on myself which all but confirmed my suspicion of breast cancer.”
Alone in the office, she called her colleague and fellow breast cancer surgeon Dr. Paul Dagher to break the news and to schedule a minimally invasive breast biopsy under ultrasound in their office for the following day. After her appointment was scheduled, she compartmentalized her concerns and headed to the hospital where her breast cancer patients were waiting to be seen.
“I was very careful to not let my emotions impact my clinical acuity at that time,” she said. “Breast cancer is very common; on average it impacts one-in-eight women and that is why I stress to my patients the importance of having an annual mammogram. We are very fortunate in this community to have The Wilma Redmond Breast Center, which is equipped with the latest in 3D mammography technology.”
The Tumor Board
After the biopsy confirmed the diagnosis, her case was then brought before the Tumor Board at Watauga Medical Center. The Tumor Board, which meets weekly to discuss cases, consists of a radiologist, pathologist, several surgeons including Dr. Beaver, as well as the Cancer Center’s medical oncologists, radiation oncologist, nurse navigator, and cancer center team members. Together, they review each patient’s case to create a comprehensive treatment plan.
“Observing the Tumor Board for the first-time from a patient’s perspective was very humbling,” she said. “It is hard to articulate just how much professional collaboration goes into the specifics of each treatment plan outlined right here in Boone. What patients may not realize is that we meet like this for each and every case and twice for breast cancer cases (before and after surgery) to carefully determine next steps.”
Dr. Dagher performed a successful lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node excision surgery without complication at Watauga Medical Center on December 14, just two weeks after the tumor was first detected. “I never considered going anywhere else for my treatment,” she said. “Simply put, I know from first-hand experience how good Dr. Dagher is at surgery and how professional the team is in the OR. I also knew that if chemotherapy were recommended, that I would want to have Dr. Anna Sobol, at the Cancer Center to be the one coordinating my medical oncology treatment plan.”
Based on the type of breast cancer and the biology of the tumor, the Tumor Board recommended chemotherapy followed by radiation treatment. As a result, Dr. Beaver went on temporary medical leave while Dr. Sobol outlined a chemotherapy regimen for a collaborative treatment approach at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in Boone that is expected to conclude in January 2019.
One side effect that can present as a result from her particular chemotherapy drug regimen is peripheral neuropathy, which is a loss of sensory and motor functions in the fingers and toes, a major concern for a surgeon. To help thwart the potential of this condition from negatively affecting her surgical career, Dr. Beaver has committed to safeguard (reduce the blood flow circulation to) her hands and feet by keeping them submerged in buckets of ice water during each and every one of her four-and-a-half hour long chemotherapy treatments. To help pass the time during treatment, her husband and parents gather around her to provide encouragement in the form of prayer, conversation, and old episodes of the TV sitcom Monk.
“Everyone has hard things they have to deal with in life,” she said. “While this is not something I would have chosen for myself, I firmly believe that God is in control and that he has a purpose for everything. I just want to remain faithful to him while I walk down this path.”
If all goes as planned, Dr. Beaver will return to work later this year. She hopes this experience will help her as a physician better relate to and encourage the breast cancer patients she feels so privileged to serve.
“I hope my story will encourage others to keep the faith,” she said. “I hope to one day tell my patients that I’ve been there and done that, and that like me, they too can beat it!”
To learn more about Watauga Surgical Group, call 828-264-2340 or visit apprhs.org/wataugasurgical.
Visit apprhs.org/cancer to learn about the extensive cancer services of ARHS.