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Petaluma woman’s Valentine’s Day was disrupted by ‘scary’ diagnosis. This year is different.

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Feb. 14, 2019 will be forever marked by the news that Allison Morris did not want to receive, not on Valentine’s Day or any other day of the year.

It was 5 p.m., and Morris, a Petaluma resident, was getting ready to go out to dinner with her husband and three young children when she received a call from her doctor at Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael. The results of her biopsy were in and it was not good news — breast cancer that had also spread to her lymph nodes.

“I just couldn’t believe it, there is no history of cancer in my family. I was healthy,” said Morris, 40. “I was completely blindsided.”

Overcome with emotions, her first thought was about her children, ages 10, 8 and 4. She turned to her husband, Steve Morris, who works with youth ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa. Steve calmly explained to the kids what was going on, telling them that their mother was going to be alright.

Morris, however, wasn’t so sure.

“My head was spinning,” she said. “My whole world felt like it was falling apart. It was scary.”

The silver lining amid the bad news was that her doctors had detected the cancer early enough to treat it and allow Morris to make a full recovery. But getting there was going to be a journey, she knew.

There were six rounds of chemotherapy from March through June followed by a double mastectomy in July. That was followed up with a round of radiation that started in the fall and is set to wrap up this month.

The treatments sapped her energy and she had to take time off from her work at a market research firm, which was very supportive, she said. Her biggest fear, though, was losing her brunette locks, a typical side effect of chemotherapy.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t look like mom to my kids if I didn’t have my hair,” she said. “The thought of keeping my hair gave me something to hold onto. It was the hope that I wouldn’t look like a cancer patient.”

At a cancer support group, she learned about a new device called a DigniCap Scalp Cooling System, which cools the scalp and allows patients to keep their hair.

Kaiser San Rafael happened to be the first hospital in the Kaiser system to use the device made by Dignitana. Mary Alice Nolan, manager of the cancer program at Kaiser San Rafael, said the device is easy to use and helps patients hang on to their dignity.

“When you get breast cancer, you feel out of control,” said Nolan, who was part of Morris’s care team. “You lose your self esteem. When you look at your self in the mirror, it’s a daily reminder that you have cancer. If you can save your hair, people can’t tell that you have cancer. It’s an incredible thing you can do for a patient.”

Sothy Lam, a registered nurse who worked with Morris, said she was anxious at first, but took to the treatment well after the first session. He said that her husband and other family members stayed with her during the 5-hour sessions.

“She had a good support network,” Lam said. “The first day is always the hardest, like the first day of school. Once she got the routine down, she was fine.”

Morris said hair thinned, but she kept about 70% of it. But the system is not cheap. An elective treatment, it’s not covered by Kaiser’s insurance and runs about $1,500 to $1,800 out of pocket. Nolan said advocates are working to get Kaiser to cover the DigniCap Scalp Cooling System.

When she first learned that she was cancer-free, Morris said she put on some music and had a dance party with her family. She’s regained her energy and has taken up walking and jogging on trails around her east Petaluma house.

Now, approaching the 1-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Morris is planning a much more celebratory Valentine’s Day, which happens to be her mother-in-law’s 70th birthday, when the family will gather for a big dinner.

“We have a lot to celebrate this year,” she said. “I feel like I am a changed person. I have a new sense of gratitude. Life is for living. You never know what can happen.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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