A Patient's Miracle Journey

From inoperable to cancer free ─ exceptional cancer care near her home.


Debi Karjalainen says it’s a miracle she’s alive.  

After being diagnosed with stage four cervical and lung cancer, the Coupeville resident began treatment at WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care in January 2014. Karjalainen was told by her doctors that patients don’t usually survive such a diagnosis. But Karjalainen says that the positive attitude that she carried with her through this frightening journey was made possible by the compassionate, expert care she received so close to home.

“I know that everybody’s story is different, but for me the care that I needed was right here at the hospital and it made everything easier and better,” Karjalainen says.

“I feel like I was gently walked through this journey with the needed information at the time that I needed it. I didn’t feel too overwhelmed with too much information, but I always felt like my care was everyone’s top priority.”

The WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care program has been accredited by Commission on Cancer since 1979, and was one of only two programs in Washington to win the commission’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2013. The program provides Whidbey Island patients with evidence-based, coordinated treatment. And, as Karjalainen emphasizes, it’s better to be able to do it at home. Her nurses agree.

“People often mistakenly think if you go to a large cancer center you will get  better cancer care,” says oncology-certified nurse Lisa Toomey, RN.

“With oncology care, there are evidence-based protocols for chemotherapy no matter where you are in the United States. Most cancers can be treated here, and if you need to go to the city for more specialized treatment or radiation, we can help coordinate that.”

When she was first diagnosed, Karjalainen says she was thankful for both the gentleness and the honesty of her doctors. After getting same-day results from an ultrasound that was suggested by her primary care provider, Karjalainen was referred to Melissa Chinn, DO, an OB/GYN at WhidbeyHealth Women’s Care, next door to the medical center.  She was eventually referred to medical oncologist Dr. Wendy Wang.

“Both doctors were very honest with me in a very difficult situation,” Karjalainen says.

“It was stage four, inoperable, incurable cervical and lung cancer, so the original prognosis was not good.  They told me this treatment could give me more time,” Karjalainen recalls.

Her immediate impression was that she was in good hands and that she didn’t need to go somewhere else. That was November 2013. In January 2014, she started chemotherapy in the Medical Ambulatory Care (MAC) unit at WhidbeyHealth Medical Center.

The staff here at WhidbeyHealth cares for you more like family, because here on Whidbey you are family. That’s a huge difference from going off the island; that we care personally for each person that comes through our doors.
─ Jackie Bruns, RN, OCN, patient navigator

“I can’t even tell you how critical the nurses were to my treatment. It takes a special person to do what they do. They were very careful with their words and actions ─ aware how vulnerable I was. If hadn’t been getting chemo I would have thought I was at a spa, because they would bring me warm blankets and pillows, hot tea and always comforting words. It was just really amazing.”

The WhidbeyHealth team scheduled Karjalainen’s off-island radiation treatments, which she needed for 30 consecutive days.

“My care team was great at coordinating the radiation and letting me know what to expect and what to pay attention to during the treatments. They were very careful about watching those things for me and boosting me up when the journey became tough. They did everything to make it as manageable as possible,” she says.

The manager of WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care, Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Renee Yanke, ARNP, MN, says that one of the most important things her team values is the connection they make with their patients.

“One thing we often hear from patients and family members is the sense of community and support they get from WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care,” Yanke says.  “These patients feel that they are more than ‘just a number’ and yet they have access to cutting edge therapies such immunotherapies and genetic testing.”

And now Karjalainen’s cancer is completely gone.

Wui-JinKoh, MD of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance is one of the radiation oncologists who treated her.

“Dr. Koh told me that it was unique and amazing the way my body responded to treatment. ‘We do not see this,’ he said to me. ‘We do not see people come back from stage four cervical and lung cancer.’”

Treatment ended after about nine months and now Karjalainen sees her doctor every six months after a visit to the lab for a blood draw.

“I come to the lab here at the hospital and see the doctor the next day. I’m so grateful to the lab because I don’t have to leave the island and they always make sure the lab work is ready for Dr. Wang the next day.”

Meanwhile, Karjalainen says she feels great. She is so grateful for her care that she now volunteers in the MAC, comforting patients in the same way she was comforted. She likes to think her positive attitude made a difference.

“I didn’t lay awake at night thinking about my cancer. I had a real trust and confidence in my doctors and nurses and felt like they were genuinely concerned for me and my health.”

When Karjalainen looks back on her experience at WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care she wants people to know that that her care was professional and compassionate.

“There is nowhere I could have gone to receive better care. I thank Dr. Wang for that. She calculated everything correctly and I’m a living example of her success.”

As the cancer care program has grown one thing we are most excited about is our collaboration with nutrition, rehab and social work to round out our survivorship focus.  People can regain their optimal levels of physical and emotional activity during and after cancer treatment — allowing them to live with the disease, instead of cancer taking over their lives. 
─ Renee Yanke, RN, OCN, WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care manager