‘That’s how we’d win the game’: After a routine surgery revealed stage 4 cancer, Dee Bisel persevered
If you’ve ever been to a granny basketball game in Lawrence, you’ve likely run into Dee Bisel. At age 74, she’s a staple in the sport, in which only women over age 50 can compete.
“I’ve played granny basketball for five years and I love it,” she said. “I think it brings out the youth in us. I also played senior softball until three years ago when I got a concussion and had to quit.”
But Bisel was recently sidelined from the game she loves — and from many other activities — when she got a scary diagnosis after what she thought was going to be a routine hysterectomy.
When Bisel scheduled her hysterectomy for Jan. 21, 2022, seven days after her birthday, she couldn’t have imagined the long road ahead. Kristi Burgess, her daughter, traveled to Lawrence from Leawood to wait for her and take her home after the surgery.
Burgess hadn’t expected anything out of the ordinary, so she was shocked when she received ominous news from urogynecologist Dr. Cathy Dahl.
“They’d taken a biopsy during the procedure and run it to pathology,” Burgess said. “I didn’t quite understand the terms they were using, but Dr. Dahl told me that it was cancer.”
Before the surgery, Bisel didn’t have any reason to believe she had cancer. She didn’t have any pain or symptoms. When she woke up, all of that changed.
“When I woke, my daughter was standing over me, crying and gripping one hand, and Dr. Dahl had my other. I didn’t know what was wrong,” Bisel said. “I wasn’t sure who had cancer because I was still so out of it.
“They wheeled me down for a CT scan, and there went my basketball season.”
Sharing the news
Burgess’ younger brother, Ryan Bisel, lives in Norman, Oklahoma, and wasn’t on hand for their mother’s surgery. Burgess called him right away to tell him the news.
“It’s kind of an unfolding realization as to what was happening throughout the day — three phone calls across three to five hours. I was scared, crying and praying,” he said.
The family had three days to process what had occurred and prepare for the next step: an appointment with Bisel’s care team. When the appointment came, the news was bleak. The team — Dr. Sherri Soule, an oncologist with the LMH Health Cancer Center, Dr. Ralph Park, a surgeon with Lawrence General Surgery, and radiation oncologist Dr. Darren Klish — told Bisel that she had stage 4 colon cancer.
“There were a couple of options to start treatment. We made a plan to go ahead and start with surgery to remove a section of my colon,” Bisel said. “Dr. Park said I needed that first, so that’s what I did.”
Two weeks after her hysterectomy, Bisel was wheeled into an operating suite to have 12 inches of her colon removed. Three weeks later, in March 2022, she began chemotherapy.
The team at the LMH Health Cancer Center, which is accredited by the Commission on Cancer, did a thorough evaluation of Bisel’s tumor to fine-tune her treatment.
“We performed genomic profiling of her tumor to determine the best possible way to treat her specific cancer and incorporated the appropriate immunotherapy into her treatment,” Soule said.
The plan was for Bisel to receive 12 rounds of chemotherapy, with each round taking three days to complete. With the number of treatments involved, it was important for her to be able to get care close to home.
“Friends or family would drop me off and I’d have someone come to pick me up,” she said. “I was here three times each week. If I had to travel for treatment, I can’t imagine how hard it would be.”
Bisel would go to the Cancer Center on Tuesday morning for a chemo infusion, which took a few hours. At the end of the infusion, she would have a pump attached to her port that would deliver the chemo, and she would return to the Cancer Center on Thursday to remove it. She’d follow up with a visit on Friday to have a white blood cell shot.
Burgess also was able to get permission to record what was going on during Bisel’s treatment.
“The doctors were very receptive to us doing that,” Burgess said. “We’d send the recordings to Ryan so he was up to date with everything that was going on.”
As her treatment continued, Bisel sometimes struggled to remember things. Burgess stayed every night after treatment, just in case Bisel got sick.
“Ryan came up from Norman for my colon surgery and spent three days with me,” Bisel said. “As a widow, having children who will be with you through something like this has been marvelous.”
One of the things that Bisel appreciated most about her treatment was her team’s consideration for her quality of life. Bisel’s family has three timeshares at the Lake of the Ozarks, and vacationing there is something that they’ve built their calendars around for the past nine years.
“I told Dr. Soule this was something that I really wanted, so she arranged for me to have a two-week break before we went to the lake so that I’d feel fairly normal,” she said. “It was really needed in the middle of my treatments. They did five rounds, then a scan and told me that half the cancer was gone. It really felt like halftime.”
Ryan Bisel appreciated the consideration the team had for his mother’s quality of life, ensuring she was able to take the trip that was so important to her.
“The team really shaped some of their decision-making around us taking a trip to the lake. They were willing to work the calendar and make an adjustment so we could have that time as a family when mom was feeling good,” he said.
Nearing the finish line
After undergoing 10 rounds of chemotherapy, Bisel was scheduled to have a full-body CT scan on Aug. 3. Two days later, on Aug. 5, she and Burgess received the news they’d been hoping for: The scan was clean.
“When we found out, we both just screamed and then immediately called Ryan,” Bisel said.
Bisel had begun to develop neuropathy, a condition that typically results in numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and pain, in her hands and feet. It would worsen if she had subsequent chemotherapy, so with the results as clean as they were, Soule said that there wasn’t a need for the remaining two rounds.
“Patients like Dee are so inspiring to us,” Soule said. “She always had a smile and maintained her positivity. I truly enjoyed our appointments and conversations, which is the rewarding part of what we do. Dee was focused on receiving the best possible treatment so she could get back to her life and has done well through a difficult year.”
As a result of her treatments, Bisel was benched for the granny basketball season and had to cancel three big trips — one to the Rose Bowl, another to the Florida Keys with her granddaughter, Phoebe, and a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans to see her beloved Jayhawks.
Going forward, Bisel’s prognosis is bright. Her cancer is not curable, but it is manageable with treatment, so her care team has put together a plan for maintenance to allow her to live a full life. She’s already talking with Phoebe about when they’re going to head to Florida.
“I’m so happy not to be living day to day and being able to plan a few months out. I’m looking forward to being here and seeing all of my grandkids graduate,” Bisel said.
Bisel had some simple advice for people who’ve received a cancer diagnosis: Follow the doctor’s instructions. She knows it sounds basic, but she said it’s important not to add or subtract anything from the doctor’s recommendations.
“I just did exactly what they told me to do, whether I liked it or not,” she said. “They’re the coaches, and my job was to do what they told me to. That’s how we’d win the game.”
A team effort
Besides the convenience of LMH Health’s location, Bisel said there were other reasons she chose LMH. She said her care team provided an excellent experience, and that when she needed something, no matter the time of day, the team was there for her.
“Josh Nemechek, one of the nurses in the Cancer Center, would call me back within 15 minutes. I called at 3 a.m. one time, they called me back right away and I was at Walgreens by 3:30,” she said.
The entire team was up to speed on Bisel’s treatment, and when she interacted with various doctors in the clinic, they all knew where she was at in the process and about any issues that she’d had.
“It made me feel good knowing that if Dr. Soule wasn’t available, any of them could jump in and care for me,” she said. “Their safety precautions also set me at ease. When they bring the chemo bags in, another nurse comes in with them to double-check the numbers, my wristband and scan them to make sure they’re the right bags for me.”
Burgess and Ryan Bisel were impressed by the team’s work, as well.
“The team’s expertise has been incredible,” Burgess said. “Every step of the way, they were caring and always wanted what was best for my mom and our family. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.