Breast cancer survivor: ‘MD Anderson is a healing mecca’
On the night of Sept. 19, 2022, J’Nan Erker visited her parents to congratulate them on a milestone event. But after the celebration, she sat them down for a more sobering talk.
“Before she said a word, her face and body language told us that she was heartbroken and scared,” says Nancy Kimak, J’Nan’s mother. “She started crying and told us she’d just found out she had breast cancer. As parents, we had never howled and shouted with such grief. Our love and support were with J’Nan and her family. We moved quickly to help her find the most comprehensive cancer care.”
J’Nan’s breast cancer symptoms and diagnosis
J’Nan began breastfeeding after giving birth to her second child in August 2017.
“Several months after I stopped breastfeeding, I noticed I still had some discharge from my left breast and some breast pain, so I visited a local breast surgeon,” says J’Nan, who lives near Kansas City. “My diagnostic testing was normal so the doctor believed it was related to the breastfeeding and likely would resolve itself. After several months, the symptoms did appear to go away.”
A few years later, J’Nan noticed her nipple becoming inverted. Again, her mammogram and ultrasound came back normal, so her breast surgeon believed it was just an aesthetic issue. But the following year, she noticed her nipple had become even more inverted, so she followed up with her physician again for testing.
In September 2022, the mammogram and ultrasound were normal, so the radiologist suggested she have an MRI.
“The MRI showed a very large mass that was pretty much encompassing my left breast,” J’Nan recalls. “My biopsy the next day confirmed the mass was cancerous.”
J’Nan’s breast cancer screenings likely kept coming up normal because she has extremely dense breast tissue, which means she has more fibrous and glandular breast tissue. This makes it harder to spot tumors on a screening mammogram.
Naturally, J’Nan, a 42-year-old wife and mother of two young children, was scared when she learned she had cancer. After sharing the news with her own family and parents, she began researching where to receive the best care.
“We knew MD Anderson was the gold standard for cancer care,” says Nancy. “Six days after J’Nan’s diagnosis, we flew to MD Anderson for consultation, testing and treatment.”
Breast cancer treatment at MD Anderson
J’Nan was impressed with how quickly MD Anderson scheduled all of her appointments and how well her doctors communicated with her. During her first visit, she met breast surgeon Sarah DeSnyder, M.D., and plastic surgeon Matthew Hanasono, M.D.
“I actually sent Dr. DeSnyder a picture of me and my family because I felt it was important for her to know who I was before I came to MD Anderson,” says J’Nan. “She replied saying it was a beautiful family photo and she looked forward to meeting me. That was such a personal touch. I found the physicians and attending staff to be highly technical and skilled in their medical experiences while demonstrating kindness, sincerity, compassion and leadership.”
J’Nan’s MD Anderson care team diagnosed her with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive type of breast cancer that develops in the milk ducts. It is the earliest form of breast cancer and is also considered stage 0 breast cancer.
On Oct. 20, 2022, J’Nan had surgery. DeSnyder performed a double mastectomy to remove the 11 cm tumor on her left breast while Hanasono completed an autologous breast reconstruction. Hanasono used tissue from J’Nan’s thighs (profunda artery perforator flaps or PAP flaps) to reconstruct her breasts, also called tissue flap breast reconstruction.
“I appreciated the discussion with my doctors about what my reconstruction would look like, or if I would even have reconstruction,” says J’Nan. “They were very respectful of what I wanted while also sharing and educating me on my options.”
J’Nan says it felt good having some control over her treatment plan.
“I made no mistakes in my treatment plan by seeking care at MD Anderson,” she says. “I’m grateful for my experience and the incredible care I received at this healing mecca.”
Recognizing the importance of regular cancer screenings
While being treated at MD Anderson, J’Nan and her mother made an observation that they say reiterated the importance of cancer screening.
Patients and visitors would often initiate conversations about cancer with J’Nan’s mother, who is small-framed and wears her hair in a short cut.
“Everyone was very warm and kind,” says Nancy, “but J’Nan and I began to notice that they presumed I was the patient and J’Nan was my caretaker.”
Even though J’Nan was in a wheelchair wearing a hospital wristband, patients and visitors commented to Nancy, ‘Continue the fight’ or ‘Your hair is coming in so well.’
“These examples show we cannot diagnose cancer by sight,” Nancy says. “And conversely, we cannot assume that one who looks healthy and energetic has not been touched by cancer.”
“The comments were well-intended, and they may have presumed that my mom was undergoing cancer treatment,” says J’Nan. “But you cannot see, hear, touch, smell or taste cancer. This is why regular cancer screenings are so important.”
Embracing survivorship: ‘Go live your life’
Since her surgery, J’Nan has been doing well. She’s met with MD Anderson clinical dietitian Claire Gundlach, who shared nutrition tips and health guidance. J’Nan continues to share these good practices with her family and friends.
J’Nan had a follow-up plastic surgery procedure in May and will have her last follow-up in October. At that time, she’ll also become a patient in the survivorship clinic.
“I’ve also expanded my medical care to MD Anderson, which includes my dermatologist,” she says. “I’m extremely confident in the abilities of the professionals at MD Anderson.”
“I’m one of those people that keeps asking, ‘Are you sure you got it all?’’ she says. “And Dr. Nasrazadani and my doctors will say, ‘Yes, you’re breast cancer-free. Go live your life!’”
J’Nan credits God, her family and friends for providing support and strength to get through her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“If you are diagnosed with cancer, you do not have to stay local with your medical choices,” she says. “You can be treated at a facility that’s well-versed in the type of cancer you have, is an NCI-designated cancer center and is a global leader in cancer care. You can go to the absolute best. And for me, that was MD Anderson.”