It was July 4, 2013 — an Independence Day that remains vivid in Hetty's mind.

Hetty, now 86, was going through her typical morning routine. In the shower, however, she noticed something abnormal: a lump in her right breast.

"Right away I called my daughter Ilona, and from there things moved very fast," Hetty recalls.

Ilona, a former New York City nurse, and her husband Mike, a pharmaceutical representative, both immediately got to work to find Hetty the best care — using their knowledge of the health care field to the situation's advantage.

doctor patient

"They have both been in the medical field, so I knew they would put me in the best possible hands," Hetty explains. "Within a few days I had my imaging done and then I was told I needed to get set up for a biopsy. Mike had heard very positive things about a doctor at Hackensack Meridian Health Jersey Shore University Medical Center here in New Jersey — Dr. Denise Johnson-Miller — and they were able to get me an appointment with her."

Hetty says she immediately felt right at home in the care of Dr. Johnson-Miller, who is the Medical Director of Breast Surgery for Hackensack Meridian Health Cancer Care of Monmouth and Ocean counties.

"It turned out that Hetty did have cancer — and it was the most common type of breast cancer, which is invasive ductal cancer," Dr. Johnson-Miller says. "We sent the tumor off for a gene test and it turned out that the tumor was not that aggressive."

Based on the results, Dr. Johnson-Miller presented Hetty with one of three options — undergo a lumpectomy, which involves removing the tumor and a small rim of normal tissue surrounding it, undergo a mastectomy, which is a removal of the breast, or do nothing at all.

"I asked Dr. Johnson-Miller what she recommended given my age, and because I'm still very active — I ride my bicycle every day-- and because of how healthy I was otherwise, she suggested a mastectomy," Hetty says. "Just like that, it was decided. I knew I could trust her completely."

The operation was scheduled for August 2013. Following surgery, Hetty's care team recommended she undergo external beam radiation. In total, she had 30 treatments. Over the course of treatment, Hetty says she always remained positive — thanks to the strong relationship and trust she had built with the team at Hackensack Meridian Health.

"I've never seen caretakers who are that kind," Hetty adds. "It was like one happy family. I'm forever grateful to Ilona and Mike for guiding me to the Hackensack Meridian Health care team."

ladies on the beach

Dr. Johnson-Miller says, in her eyes, building those relationships is such an important part of what it takes to be an effective caregiver.

"One of my favorite parts is getting to know my patients, their children, their grandchildren, and so on, and establishing relationships with them," Dr. Johnson-Miller says. "We stay in touch with our patients by following up with them long term."

And staying in touch they do. Cleared of cancer following radiation, Hetty continued to frequent Hackensack Meridian Health, not as a patient this time, but as a volunteer. She still volunteers with Dr. Johnson-Miller's office until this day and continues to remain healthy and cancer-free.

At Hackensack Meridian Health, patients have access to surgical, medical and radiation oncology expertise as well as clinical trials.

To learn more about Hackensack Meridian Health's cancer services, visit

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