November 25, 2019
16-year survivor: A breast cancer diagnosis helped me find my life’s purpose
BY Vanessa Sanders
I’ve been helping people get around at MD Anderson since 2002. First, I drove the ground shuttles that travel between our buildings at the Texas Medical Center Campus. Then, I became a dispatch team leader. And in 2011, I started driving the shuttle carts that connect our buildings along the skybridge.
Over the years, I’ve probably heard hundreds of our patients’ cancer stories. I never thought I’d have one to tell myself. But I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in October 2003, less than 12 months after I started working here. And it was a scary walk, but I feel like I’ve finally found my purpose: giving hope to others.
My breast cancer diagnosis
I had a little lump in my left breast for years. But I’m one of those people who thinks, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And it never bothered me, so I just left it alone. Then I started feeling sharp pains in my chest. They weren’t very frequent, but they were striking. Sometimes they felt like labor contractions.
One day, the pain was so severe that it brought me to tears. I went to my doctor, and he ordered a mammogram. It showed a suspicious growth in my left breast. He ordered a biopsy. The results showed I had invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer. The doctor said it was stage IV. So, I went to MD Anderson’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center.
My breast cancer treatment
At MD Anderson, I met with medical oncologist Dr. Abenaa Brewster, radiation oncologist Dr. Eric Strom and surgical oncologist Dr. Barry Feig. They did their own scans and biopsies and discovered that my cancer was actually at stage III, rather than stage IV. I was overjoyed.
I said, “OK. What do we do now?” They recommended a clinical trial under Dr. Aman Buzdar that would shrink the tumor with a new combination of chemotherapy (fluorouracil, epirubicin and cyclophosphamide, plus docetaxel and capecitabine) so it could be removed more easily with surgery. After that, I’d have six weeks of radiation therapy.
Back then, I was still afraid I was going to die. So, I made up my mind that I was going to go out fighting. I’d do every clinical trial my doctors wanted me to. I’d try anything they thought might help.
I started chemotherapy just after my 39th birthday in late November. By the time Dr. Feig performed the surgery on June 14, 2014, the lump had completely disappeared. As a precaution, he removed a small section of tissue where the tumor had been. But I was able to keep my breast. I finished my radiation treatments on Aug. 25, 2004. And thanks to God and my doctors at MD Anderson, I’ve been cancer-free ever since.
My mission today: giving other patients hope
I’ve shown no evidence of disease for 15 years now. But I don’t just blurt it out. After a while, you get a sense of when people riding your cart are really scared or have just gotten bad news. So, I give out words of encouragement every day. If my story can be the thing that gives other people strength, then I want them to hear it. It’s important to stay positive.
I feel like I have a lot to be happy about, just because I’m a survivor. And I never have a bad day. My job gives me the opportunity to support other cancer patients, to let them know they’re not fighting alone. And when they see living proof that there’s a chance they could be alright, too, they feel better about what they’re about to go through.
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TopicsBreast Cancer Clinical Trials
I never have a bad day.