Breast cancer survivor and employee: MD Anderson is the only place to be
A breast cancer diagnosis is not the end of the world, though it can certainly feel like it at the time. And I know, because I’ve been there twice. My first diagnosis was in April 2010, and the second one was in September 2022.
Fortunately, there was never any question as to where I’d go for my breast cancer treatment. I’d been an MD Anderson employee for almost 20 years by the time I received my first breast cancer diagnosis and more than 30 years by the time I received my second one.
The people on my care team have changed a bit between now and then. But one thing has remained the same: they all worked together to design the best possible treatment plan just for me.
My first breast cancer diagnosis
My first breast cancer was detected through a routine screening mammogram. I was 42 at the time and hadn’t had any symptoms. The physician just saw something suspicious on the film of my right breast and called me back in for an ultrasound and a breast biopsy.
I wasn’t really worried. I’d found a lump in my breast when I was only 18, and after going through the same process, it had turned out to be nothing.
Still, I’m a very practical person. So, when the physician told me the pea-sized lump in my right breast was stage I cancer, I didn’t get upset. I don’t even think my facial expression changed. I just went straight into damage control mode. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Well, what are we going to do about it?”
Because I don’t worry about things I can’t change. I’ve got other things to think about.
I finished those treatments in December 2010 and was declared cancer-free by April 15, 2015. I started getting check-ups every three months to make sure the cancer hadn’t returned. After a while, I graduated to every six months, and finally, to once a year.
COVID-19 taught me not to neglect your check-ups
Then, the global pandemic hit, and all of that kind of went out the window. As the director of supply chain management for MD Anderson, I was in COVID-19 mode for a long time.
Now, I realize that not prioritizing my health during that period was a mistake. But I was so focused on making sure MD Anderson had enough face masks and gloves and hand sanitizer to keep our patients safe that I let my annual check-ups slide. I probably missed two or three as a result.
Then, one day in the shower, I felt a lump in my right breast. And my heart sank. I knew exactly what it was.
Why I returned to MD Anderson for my breast cancer recurrence
My radiation oncologist, Dr. Elizabeth Bloom, had been so wonderful back in 2010. I knew if I ever had to go through cancer treatment again, she was the doctor I wanted by my side. As it turned out, she was now working at MD Anderson West Houston.
I reached out to her directly, and she got me set up with a new team of specialists that included her as my radiation oncologist, Dr. Ajit Bisen as my medical oncologist and Dr. Catherine Akay as my surgical oncologist.
It turned out that I had two types of cancer this time: a different one in each breast. The cancer in my right breast was the same kind I’d had there the first time around: invasive ductal carcinoma. I also tested positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation, which meant it might respond to targeted therapy.
But the one in my left breast was a very rare type: a neuroendocrine tumor. So, Dr. Bisen consulted neuroendocrine tumor specialist Dr. Arvind Dasari for advice. Together, they formulated a plan that would take into account both my prior treatment for breast cancer and the two different types of breast cancer I had now.
My second breast cancer treatment regimen
I would need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy this time around, too, and in that same order. The neuroendocrine tumor just meant I’d need a slightly different chemotherapy combination.
I told my doctors that I didn’t want to have to deal with breast cancer a third time, so the breasts I currently had needed to go. I didn’t mind being flat and fabulous for a while. I packed up all the bras in my drawer and gave them away.
Dr. Akay performed my bilateral mastectomy on Nov. 9, 2022. I rang the bell to mark the end of my chemotherapy treatments under Dr. Bisen on April 26. I’ll start my radiation treatments under Dr. Bloom sometime in May.
Six weeks after I finish those, I’ll begin exploring my options for reconstructive surgery. When I found out that I could use fat from somewhere else on my body to build new breasts from scratch, I was like, “You mean I can get a tummy tuck out of this, too? Sign me up!”
How I feel about MD Anderson today
Today, I’m more convinced than ever that if you want the best cancer care in the world from the very best doctors, MD Anderson is the only place to be. The only side effects I’ve experienced so far are fatigue and hair loss. But I have a really cute bald head, so I still look gorgeous. And anyway, that’s what they make wigs for. I can be a different person every day if I want to.
I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Bloom and MD Anderson West Houston, either. Whatever I need, Dr. Bloom helps me get it. And her caring, compassionate nature eases my mind. The atmosphere at MD Anderson West Houston is serene, too. I feel at peace the minute I walk in the door. And the focus on customer service there from the entry point to the coffeemaker is just amazing.
That’s why I can’t think of any other cancer hospital I’d rather go to. And everybody who’s been by my side along the way has told me that if anything like this ever arises for them, they want to go to MD Anderson, too. To me, that says it all.