Caregiver finds comfort in MD Anderson’s breast cancer screening and treatment expertise
In 2012, A few months after Nitin and Sharmila Vaidya celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary Sharmila found a lump in her right breast.
“I was afraid I was going to lose her,” Nitin says. “It was the most scared I have been in my entire life.”
Eight years, two cancer diagnoses and one precancerous growth later, Nitin is grateful for his wife’s bravery and strength – and for MD Anderson’s expertise in breast cancer imaging and treatment.
High-quality mammogram yields accurate diagnosis
Sharmila had just received her annual screening mammogram, recommended for most women age 40 and older, six months before she found the lump. Her doctor ordered a biopsy and a diagnostic mammogram. The biopsy showed cancer, but when the diagnostic mammogram couldn’t detect or properly measure the tumor, the Vaidyas knew they wanted to get a second opinion at MD Anderson.
“When something major like cancer is involved, our default approach is to get a second opinion,” Nitin says. “The first and foremost prerequisite of any problem, and not just in medicine, is clear understanding of the problem. Without accurate diagnosis, treatment cannot be accurate either.”
While Sharmila underwent treatment, Nitin immersed himself in medical books and journals to learn more about breast cancer. He frequently emailed Booser with questions about new research.
“Dr. Booser would always respond to my emails within the hour, even if I sent it to him in the middle of the night,” Nitin says. “I pestered him with so many emails, but not once did he ask me to stop!”
While the answer to Nitin’s emails was usually, “It’s promising, but unproven,” Nitin felt that building his own knowledge helped him cope with the situation. He was grateful that Booser listened to him.
“At times I found myself weak,” Nitin says. “On the other hand, Sharmila has a tremendous positive spirit and laughs even when she’s hurting. She’s a brave and strong woman, and I’m thankful for that.”
During chemotherapy, Sharmila dealt with side effects, including temporary blisters, mouth ulcers, fevers and hair loss. But after nearly five months of chemo, she showed a complete pathological response to treatment. Only then was Nitin able to breathe a sigh of relief.
“During the chemo, imaging showed significant reduction in tumor size, and I fervently hoped that by the end of chemo her tumor would be gone,” Nitin says. “It was a big comfort when I learned that it was indeed so and that her prognosis thereafter was excellent.”
Routine mammogram detects a second breast cancer
Sharmila continued to receive regular screening mammograms at MD Anderson as part of her breast cancer survivorship follow-up. In 2018, a routine screening mammogram detected an abnormality.
“We felt we had beaten her first cancer, so hearing about another cancer was quite discouraging,” Nitin says. Despite the news, the Vaidyas were glad that the routine mammogram found the breast cancer while the tumor was still small and treatable.
At first, the biopsy seemed to indicate it was the same type of tumor Sharmila had before, but it was not entirely definitive. Booser wanted to be sure, so he ordered additional testing. The extra diligence paid off: this time the tumor was HER2-positive, a completely new and separate breast cancer from Sharmila’s 2012 diagnosis.
This time, she underwent a mastectomy, followed by another IV chemotherapy regime and HER2 targeted therapy.
“Without insistence by Dr. Booser, she might have received a different therapy and the likelihood of successful treatment would have been lower,” Nitin says. “Instead, two years later, we are quite confident that she has overcome this cancer, too.”
Rare gastrointestinal tumor expertise
In between her two breast cancer diagnoses, Sharmila also had an emergency appendectomy. That surgery revealed an unusual growth in her appendix. The doctors couldn’t identify it and recommended sending the biopsy sample to MD Anderson for review, given Sharmila’s cancer history.
It turned out to be a rare mucinous appendiceal neoplasm with a 25% chance of developing into cancer. Surgical oncologist Keith Fournier, M.D., specializes in this extremely rare condition and successfully removed the low-grade tumor. Sharmila’s had no signs of recurrence since then.
Stay positive and have faith
“After three different personal experiences, I can say with a great degree of confidence that the thoroughness of diagnosis and treatment at MD Anderson is exceptional,” Nitin says. “God willing, we will never have to face cancer again. But, if we do, it is comforting to know that MD Anderson is here.”
Although the fear of recurrence still lingers, Nitin and Sharmila have learned that life is short and it’s important to enjoy it while you can. They love to travel and have visited Peru, the U.K. and the Bahamas together. Now that Nitin has retired, they are looking forward to traveling more once the COVID-19 pandemic wanes and it’s safe to do so.
He offers this advice to other cancer patients and caregivers: “Learn as much as you can about the disease. Ask the right questions and be informed. Most importantly, have a positive spirit and have faith. Know that this, too, shall pass.”