At first, Joy Mills and Arthur “Buck” Benedict look like any other happy, older couple traveling by ferry from their home on Peaks Island, Maine, to Portland. Admiring the beautiful views, they sit outside when weather permits. They laugh, chat with friends, and occasionally needle each other during the 18-minute trip.
Once a month, the ferry ride is followed by a two-hour drive to Boston, necessitated by Mills’ metastatic breast cancer treatment at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. But these valentines enjoy themselves nonetheless, because their love and pleasure in each other’s company does not waver — even in challenging times.
“I could never do this without him,” says Mills, 80, of her husband. “I can’t even imagine it.”
“It’s a true partnership,” Benedict agrees. “If Joy only has a small window of time to eat before a particular treatment, I run out and get her food. When we meet with her clinical team, I take all the notes so she can fully focus on listening.”
Both are quick to credit those helping them on their journey. In addition to participating in a clinical trial led by her oncologist Wendy Chen, MD, MPH, Mills is enrolled in the Program for Older Adults with Breast Cancer (OABC) at Dana-Farber Brigham. Focused on the unique needs of patients 70 and older — the most common age group to develop breast cancer — the program offers personalized support including help with other geriatric and age-related health issues.
Two weddings and a diagnosis
Tammy Hshieh, MD, MPH, a geriatrician specializing in cancer care, provides Mills and other OABC patients with geriatric assessments and follow-up care as needed. OABC program manager Karen Ruderman, MPH, MS, and program coordinator Sydney Simo coordinate Mills’ other Dana-Farber Brigham appointments, including consults with the Spiritual Care Program, a social worker, and a geriatric pharmacist who goes over all of Mills’ medications with the couple.
“The medical needs of older adults often become more individualized, so I am always sure to discuss how treatment is effecting them holistically,” says Hshieh. “For Ms. Mills, we changed the timing and doses of her medications to decrease fatigue and prevent falls. We also talked about dietary protein to help with nausea. It was a pleasure to see how well she is supported by her husband and partner. Not every older adult has this kind of support, so the OABC program tries to help them build it.”
Mills and Benedict are deeply appreciative of the focused care they receive from the OABC team, as well as from Chen, clinical research nurse Jordan Bowers, RN, and nurse practitioner Sarah McCaskey, NP-C.
“I’m amazed to have people coming to us, and not having to ask for them,” says Mills. “Even though we’re both 80, we feel right on the ground level of information and care.”
Everyday support starts at home. It’s Benedict who reminds his wife to take her daily oral treatment, and he’s behind the wheel during the long drives to Dana-Farber Brigham. When she feels woozy, or tired, he is there to steady her.
Theirs was a marriage precipitated by another. They met when Mills, an Episcopal priest, officiated at the 1996 wedding of Benedict’s brother. Mills was married then, and after she was widowed years later they reconnected. A friendship blossomed, and later a romance.
Both then lived in the Philadelphia area, where Benedict taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and in November 2004 they married with their respective children and grandchildren all in attendance. When Mills developed breast cancer in 2012, Benedict was by her side for her lumpectomy and radiation. She went into remission and back to work.
Recurrence and retirement
Then, in 2018, a bump developed on Mills’ neck. Friends who were doctors encouraged her to get it seen immediately, and it turned out her breast cancer had returned — and this time it was metastatic.
The couple had since bought a second house on Peaks Island, and after getting this diagnosis they decided to retire and live in the tiny, idyllic Maine community year-round. Mills’ Pennsylvania doctor recommended them to Dana-Farber Brigham and breast oncologist Beth Overmoyer, MD, who consulted on Mills’ care until her own retirement.
For a while, with Mills’ cancer controlled, regular trips to Dana-Farber Brigham were not necessary. But after a scan showed it growing again in 2022, Mills was accepted into the clinical trial. At first, the ferry rides were a weekly occurrence. Since December, 2022, however, they have been monthly. Mils takes oral treatment at home between the visits, and never feels far from her Dana-Farber Brigham team — even when an island away.
“We get up in the morning, look at the ocean, and can’t believe how lucky we are,” says Mills.