June 28, 2022
Breast cancer survivor: Treatment at MD Anderson is helping me get on with my life
BY Tenchita Urteaga
In September 2021, I was in the process of moving to San Antonio and finishing up some coursework for a teaching certification. Then, I got diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, and all of that had to wait.
I knew my diagnosis wasn’t the end of the world. I’d been a certified health care interpreter for years, and I’d heard about lots of serious medical conditions. But I didn’t know exactly where to start in terms of my own treatment. And, I was disappointed that I had to put all of my plans on hold.
I’m glad I ultimately decided to go to MD Anderson. Being treated here has helped me to get on with my life.
Why I chose MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment
I am the type of person who likes to get things done. So, I was ready to start my breast cancer treatment right away. I considered getting it in Mexico at first, but mostly because I happened to be visiting my parents there when I was diagnosed. I thought it might be simpler.
Then, my doctor told me about breast medical oncologist Dr. Vicente Valero at MD Anderson. He noted that Dr. Valero speaks fluent Spanish, too, which would make it a lot easier for my parents to stay involved. And I thought, “I live in Houston, and MD Anderson is the No. 1 cancer hospital. Why would I go anywhere else?”
I also didn’t want to quit working. My full-time job as a Braille proofreader and my part-time job as a health care interpreter give my life stability. So, logistically, Mexico just didn’t make any sense.
At the time, I was already packing up my house in Houston and had boxes everywhere. But I contacted my realtor and said to call it all off.
My breast cancer treatment
Everything moved really fast once I met with Dr. Valero. He recommended six months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by a mastectomy with surgical oncologist Dr. Funda Meric-Bernstam, and six weeks of radiation therapy under radiation oncologist Dr. Simona Shaitelman. I’d also take an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab for about a year.
Because I was only 38 at the time of my diagnosis, Dr. Valero suggested I meet with a fertility specialist to discuss my options. But the tumor was growing so quickly by then that I didn’t want to postpone treatment. When I first discovered the lump in the shower in December 2020, it was only about the size of a marble. I’d been told it was benign. But 10 months later, the lump had grown to the size of a golf ball and become quite painful. So, I knew it was not.
I started chemotherapy on Oct. 22, 2021, and finished it on March 18, 2022. I had a double mastectomy on April 21, 2022, because I didn’t want to take the chance of having to go through this again. Before starting radiation therapy, Dr. Valero gave me some great news: I had shown a complete pathological response to chemotherapy, and now had no evidence of disease. But I still began my radiation treatments in late May, and I’ll finish them out in early July. I’ll also continue receiving immunotherapy through October.
My breast cancer treatment side effects
So far, I haven’t had any really serious side effects from my breast cancer treatment. I experienced some mild body aches, loss of appetite, and fatigue during chemotherapy, but they weren’t that bad.
On the days when I didn’t feel particularly well, I’d just take my laptop to bed with me. That allowed me to keep up with my job as well as my studies. I’ve also been able to keep working full-time, though I did have to stop my part-time job for a while.
One thing that has made my treatment much easier is having a port installed. Not having it would have made my experience extremely painful, since my veins are so difficult to find. Surgical oncologist Dr. Ervin Brown did a great job, and my recovery from the implantation surgery was very smooth.
How MD Anderson is getting me back on track
I’ve really appreciated how accommodating MD Anderson has been, in terms of scheduling. Most of my appointments are late in the afternoon, so I can work as long as possible. And any time I’ve had a conflict, I can usually move my appointments pretty easily, whether by using MyChart or by calling the schedulers. They are always so nice.
I also like MyChart’s notifications feature. It keeps me on my toes. Since I didn’t want to quit school or quit working during treatment, that’s been really helpful.
Another thing that’s helped me stay on track is MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult program. It has a virtual support group for young adults that meets on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month.
During meetings, we talk about how our treatment is going, and share our highs and lows — the challenges and triumphs. It’s been good to learn that what I’m feeling is normal and how much we all have in common. It’s also been nice to know that I’m not crazy, and to discuss my frustrations with having to put my life on hold.
My life today, nearing the finish line
Today, my hair is finally growing back, and my energy levels are almost back to normal.
I’m scheduled to move to San Antonio later this summer and am making plans to take the state exams to be certified as a Special Education teacher of the visually impaired. I also expect to resume interpreting soon.
Most importantly, though, I am cancer-free, which is the best news of all.
I always knew I’d be in good hands if I went to MD Anderson. It may be the best decision I ever made.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
TopicsBreast Cancer Fertility
I knew my diagnosis wasn’t the end of the world.