09:50 AM

Miles City woman grateful for “home” to stay in during lung cancer treatment

When Helen Rath of Miles City experienced unexplained weight loss this year, her daughter Carla Buffington encouraged her to follow up with her primary care provider at Holy Rosary Healthcare. After her provider, Kara Erickson, ordered additional testing and imaging, they identified a concerning spot in her lung. After a biopsy, doctors confirmed that Helen had lung cancer.  

After meeting with an oncologist at the St. Vincent Cancer Centers of Montana in Billings, it was determined that Helen would need both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. For Helen, having frequent appointments and treatments for medical care was new.  

"Mom has been lucky. She is 88 and has been very healthy, hardly seeing the doctor." Carla shared. 

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Because the radiation therapy would require daily treatments for six weeks, Carla worried about where they may need to stay during the treatments and how that would impact her mother's healing. They were relieved to learn about the St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation's Meadowlark house, which provides free housing to patients like Helen, who need to travel for cancer treatment.  

Helen Rath

"We feel very blessed. It has been a wonderful and comfortable place to stay while mom has been getting her treatments," said Carla.   

The private house has two bedrooms, a full kitchen, and a living room, which has allowed Carla and her other sisters to take turns caring for their mother while in Billings. Because the daily appointments are only less than an hour, Helen and her daughters have enjoyed the warm fall weather and taking walks around the neighborhood. Carla has taken advantage of time and space to prepare for several holiday craft fairs she is participating in.   

“So often times patients are driving from all over the state of Montana, hours, hundreds of miles away, and it is not practical for them to drive home between treatments because they are here for 10 days to two months. We really strive to provide a place where they can relax and refresh themselves between cancer treatments and really have their home away from home," said Tyler Wiltgen, executive director of St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation.

Helen finished her treatments on November 20, and while she has enjoyed a 'home away from home' during treatment, she was excited to return to Miles City for Thanksgiving.   

"Given everything, it has been a good experience," said Helen. “Everyone at the cancer center is wonderful to the patients and families.” 

In the new year, patients like Helen may not have to travel for care. Holy Rosary will open a new comprehensive Cancer Center in Miles City in late 2024. The 12,000-square-foot center will provide radiation, medical, and surgical oncology services to address the needs of cancer patients in rural Eastern Montana. The center will eliminate distance and access barriers to care for the people living in the region.     

Because November is Lung Cancer Awareness month, Rath and Buffington wanted to also bring awareness to the importance of early detection of lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, accounting for 25 percent of all cancer deaths.  

Low Dose Lung Screening can provide early cancer detection and greatly increases chances for survival. For those who meet the criteria, annual cancer screenings can help find lung cancer at the first stages. If you are over age 50, have a history of smoking, or are a current smoker, individuals are encouraged to talk to the primary care provider to see if a screening is right for them. The lung cancer screening allows medical providers to identify areas that may need to be biopsied to identify and confirm cancer. St. Vincent now offers cutting-edge, robotic-assisted bronchoscopy, which allows for a minimally invasive and highly effective lung biopsy, resulting in better patient outcomes.    

Because lung cancer is often found only after symptoms, it's important to talk to your doctor and know your risk factors.  

After going through this experience with her mother, Carla encourages others to pay attention to changes in health and that of their loved ones.  

"It is important to advocate for yourself and your family members' health when you notice something going on," she shared. "Early detection is important; don't be afraid to ask for what you need."