HER2 Positive Breast Cancer Survivor Gains New Perspective | breast health month
Over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about what makes MD Anderson #1 in the nation for cancer care. As Quality and Compliance Coordinator in the diagnostic laboratories here my job is to make sure all the labs in the hospital are inspected and operating safely. Our laboratories are the diagnostic backbone for the patients of MD Anderson.
So I know how important it is to be vigilant about cancer screenings.
My diagnosis of HER2 positive breast cancer
When I noticed a pain in my sternum that extended to my right breast, I thought I had pulled a muscle during training. It was time for my annual mammogram, so I decided to have her checked at that time.
A week after my May 2021 mammogram, my doctor asked me to come back for more images. I also had two biopsies – one from a lymph node next to my sternum and the other in a lump on my right breast.
I learned on June 8 that I had HER2 positive breast cancer. As scared as I was, I’ll never forget one of my nurses who said to me, “Don’t worry: 20 years ago we didn’t know what to do with this, but now we do.
I couldn’t believe how fast MD Anderson moved to start my treatment. Less than a week after my diagnosis, I had my first appointment. My healthcare team decided that I needed six sets of chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy to remove the mass, then six weeks of a type of radiation therapy called volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT) treatment.
Managing Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment
I started chemotherapy on July 2. I started losing my hair pretty quickly after that. I remember shaving my head right away, which was a great experience. I did not like the taste of bread, some meats and fried foods during the treatment. I also didn’t like the taste of water, so I didn’t drink very often.
Watermelon and lemons became two things I loved the most throughout the treatment. The lemons helped relieve nausea and the watermelon kept me hydrated.
I had bone pain from the pegfilgrastim injections I received after each cycle of chemotherapy. This medicine helps the bone marrow produce white blood cells to fight infection. The pain made it difficult to walk for a few days after each treatment. As my treatments progressed, I felt tired and was often short of breath when walking to work. Those days I worked from home. My team gave me extra support.
My Compassionate Care Team
I suffered a port placement surgery under the care of Ervin Brown, MD He always greeted me with smiles and good jokes. One of Dr. Brown’s particular qualities is his ability to make patients feel like part of their family. I learned that Dr. Brown likes sing during her surgeries. Since I wear hearing aids, I couldn’t hear during the procedure, so Dr. Brown emailed me the songs he was singing.
When I was admitted to the hospital, the first thing I noticed was the care and compassion of the medical breast oncologist Carlos Barcenas, MD He is a great listener and really heard what I was saying and not saying. He made sure my caregiver understood what to do, which made us both feel comfortable.
I was nervous about the lumpectomy to remove the tumor from my breast and lymph nodes. But during my preoperative appointment on November 15, the breast surgeon Nina Tamirisa, MD, came ready to listen. She calmed all my fears. She explained the procedure to me in a language I could understand. Plastic surgeon Alexandre Mericli, MD, performed my breast reconstruction. He was exceptional. Dr. Mericli made sure I was comfortable with the edits and included the changes I wanted to see. Almost a year later, I have minimal scarring and I’m happy with the results.
VMAT has helped minimize the impact of radiation on my skin pigment
Last January, after completing chemotherapy and surgery, I started six weeks of VMAT radiotherapy under the care of a radiation oncologist Benjamin Smith, MD He chose the VMAT treatment because I have darker skin pigmentation and this type of radiation has less effect on the skin.
Radiated skin becomes darker with each session and can sometimes become permanent. But with VMAT, the skin is more likely to return to its normal tone.
Dr. Smith was always interested in how I was feeling and took the time to answer all of my questions.
Find ways to ease the challenges of cancer
I didn’t choose to have cancer or need breast reconstruction surgery. But the experience changed me in many ways.
I was doing a great job processing everything I was going through, but acceptance was another story. I asked for help from MD Anderson clinical psychologist Sujin Ann-Yi, Ph.D., who helped me to accept my condition. She let me know it was okay to be angry, but she wouldn’t let me sit in that space for long. Dr. Ann-Yi was especially helpful after my breast surgery. She helped me come to terms with my new breast configurations and find ways to be comfortable with my new identity.
No one expects to be diagnosed with cancer, but when it happens, you need the attention and support of those around you. As an employee, I have seen my colleagues live MD Andersonthe core values of caring and integrity. My colleagues helped me when times were tough, and thanks to that, I didn’t miss too many days of work.
I completed treatment on June 24, 2022. I will continue to be monitored closely for the next five years and then transition to monitoring care at the MD Anderson Breast Cancer Survival Clinic. I focus on staying positive in hopes of not getting cancer.
what you feel is ok
After facing cancer, I now encourage other patients to remain open to change. From hair loss to weight loss to affected personal relationships, keep an open mind. Keep your heart open. Feel what you feel – it’s OK. Remembering to stay positive and present in the moment got me through cancer.
Talk to others who are going through the same thing. Let people in, because Cancer can feel isolated. Trust your medical team to do their best in your care.
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