Breast cancer survivor: How a corrected diagnosis gave me hope during early pregnancy
Gretchen Lee Herrera
I had just finished breastfeeding my one-year-old in October 2017, when I felt a lump in my left breast during a shower. I knew there was a history of breast cancer on my dad’s side of the family, but at the time, I was only 36. So, I wasn’t worried. I figured it was just a clogged milk duct.
My OB/GYN insisted that I have a mammogram the next day anyway. That led to a breast biopsy right afterward. When the results came back, I was stunned: not only did I have breast cancer — I was told it was triple-negative, the same type of cancer my aunt had died from two years earlier.
I also happened to be six weeks pregnant with my third child.
Why I chose MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment
Nobody except my husband even knew I was pregnant when we found out I had cancer, so it was really hard for us to figure out what to do. It felt like there was nobody to talk to about it. We didn’t want anyone judging us or second-guessing our decisions.
We went to a local cancer center first, at my OB/GYN’s recommendation. The doctors there were very nice, but they also seemed kind of hesitant when it came to recommending a treatment plan.
They said that my cancer was super aggressive and already in my lymph nodes, and suggested it would be best if I started treatment right away. That meant we’d have to make a decision about the pregnancy — either to end it, or to risk letting the cancer spread further, while we waited another six weeks for the second trimester, the “safe window,” when chemotherapy is deemed OK for a fetus.
But when I asked how many other pregnant breast cancer patients my doctors had treated, they were silent. I thought, “Oh. That probably means I’m one of the first.” And when I asked them for copies of the research protocols they’d referenced, showing that chemotherapy was safe for developing fetuses during the second trimester, everything they printed out had MD Anderson’s name on it.
Pathology review at MD Anderson changed my diagnosis
That’s when I realized how blessed I am to live in Houston, where I have access to a hospital that’s at the absolute forefront of cancer medicine. I thought, “With a decision as big as this, it would be silly of me not to get a second opinion at MD Anderson.” So, I did.
And, you know that feeling you get sometimes, when you just know something is right? Yep, that’s the exact same feeling this place gave me. I knew the minute I walked in the doors that MD Anderson was where I needed to be.
First, my doctors reran all of my pathology labs, because they wanted to make sure they were prescribing the right treatment. That got me to thinking, “Wow. These people are really looking out for me, even without my having to ask.”
But when they discovered that my breast cancer was actually HER2+ and not triple negative, that came as an even bigger relief, because it meant there was a targeted therapy available for my type of cancer.
The doctors at MD Anderson also recommended a slightly different course for my first round of treatment. They called for only two chemotherapy drugs, rather than three. When I asked why, they said they’d stopped using the third one years ago. It had too many side effects and didn’t lead to appreciably better outcomes. The first place I went to didn’t know that yet.
The scariest part of moving forward with my pregnancy at that point was the possibility that both the baby and I might not make it. But these findings reassured me we were going to be just fine. More than anything, MD Anderson gave me hope during one of the most uncertain times of my life.
What else sets MD Anderson apart from other cancer hospitals
Another thing that really stood out to me was how kind and personable everyone at MD Anderson is. I never felt like just another patient.
When I met Dr. Mediget Teshome, my surgical oncologist, the first thing she said to me was, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. But I’m honored to meet you, and I’m really happy that you’re here.”
And she, Dr. Eric Strom, my radiation oncologist, and Dr. Mark Villa, my plastic surgeon, took into account that I had young kids at home. They tried their best to lump my appointments (and even my surgeries!) together to minimize my visits.
They always made me feel like I had a voice in my treatment, too. When I’d ask them for the millionth time, “Are you sure this is something we can do and not harm the baby?” Their answer was, “We can never be 100% sure about anything, but we are very confident that you can do this safely.”
Even more impressive was that when my doctors didn’t know something, they’d pick up the phone right then and call my OB/GYN or one of their colleagues. That, to me, was amazing because it demonstrated that they were not afraid to admit they didn’t have all the answers. They never hesitated to reach out for help when they needed it, just to make sure they were doing the right thing for me.
At one point, Dr. Teshome asked if I needed a referral to a child life specialist, for help in talking to my kids about cancer. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Yes! Of course, I do. But wait a minute. Y’all actually have one of those?” The whole place is really amazing. MD Anderson has thought of everything — the entire patient experience.
The special gesture that brought me to tears
In some ways, MD Anderson doesn’t even feel like a hospital. I actually looked forward to going there sometimes, because the nurses were so much fun. And I could go into one of the hospitality centers and rest, visit one of the gift shops and browse, pop into one of the cafeterias and eat, or even get a complimentary massage. These things kept my focus off of being sick, and redirected it to living well.
On that last day of chemo before delivering the baby, my nurse put me in a private room, then returned a few minutes later. When she pulled back the curtain, all of the doctors, nurses, and technicians who’d taken part in my care were standing there. They were holding balloons, cupcakes, and a gift card to celebrate that we had made it.
That gesture was so moving, I burst into tears. MD Anderson really is the most incredible place with the most incredible people. Why would I ever go anywhere else?
A new appreciation for why ‘where you go first matters’
My youngest child is now the most perfect 3-year-old boy you could imagine. And I’ve been cancer-free for three years. I pray that the cancer never returns. If it does, though, I feel confident that MD Anderson will not only catch it early, but also give me the best treatment options.
I’ve seen MD Anderson’s messages on billboards around town over the years, but I think it’s only now that I truly understand why “where you go first matters.” Because when cancer tries to take over your body, the only thing you still have complete control over is your peace of mind. And that’s exactly what MD Anderson gave me, by being the best of the best.