Comprehensive breast cancer treatment made me an MD Anderson fan for life
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at MD Anderson in January 2019, my biggest concern wasn’t actually my breasts. It was my heart. Because 23 years earlier, I’d been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle that can make general anesthesia riskier.
I found out I had that condition in 1996, when my heart failed just five days after my son was born. In my case, it was caused by the strain of pregnancy. Although my heart did recover from the injury, the rate at which it pumped blood remained below normal. Because of that, my doctors warned me about the risks of anesthesia, so I’d done my best to avoid having surgery.
Then came my breast cancer diagnosis. That meant at least a lumpectomy. And that meant general anesthesia. I had some concerns about how my doctors would handle it. As it turns out, I didn’t need to.
The first sign that MD Anderson was the right choice for breast cancer treatment
I’d been working at MD Anderson for almost 20 years by the time I received my initial breast cancer diagnosis. So, I already knew it was great at treating cancer. But I’d mostly worked in administrative roles. I wasn’t yet familiar with its multidisciplinary approach to treatment, where specialists from many different areas work together to provide patients with the best possible care.
The first sign this would be significant came during my visit with cardiologist Dr. Susan Gilchrist. I met with her soon after getting my biopsy results, because I needed to make a decision about where to get breast cancer treatment. Heart disease is a very prevalent in my family, so it was important to me that I feel confident in my team’s ability to work around that issue.
Dr. Gilchrist asked all the right questions and ran all the right tests, some of which I’d never had before. That made me feel much more comfortable. She also worked closely with anesthesiologist Dr. Gang Zheng to make sure I’d do well during my surgeries. Those things were extremely important for me, so I was appreciative that she took my concerns seriously. It really helped reduce my anxiety.
Expertise reveals previously undiscovered breast tumor
I became even more convinced I was in the right place after learning I didn’t just have cancer in one breast. I had it in both breasts. My initial diagnosis was ductal sarcoma in situ, or early stage 0 breast cancer, in my left breast. But I also had stage I cancer in my right breast.
I found that out after getting a scan called nuclear molecular breast imaging, which is similar to a mammogram, but uses dye to provide better definition. I got it because tests showed I’d inherited a genetic mutation called BRCA2. My surgeon, Dr. Mediget Teshome, wanted a better look at my breast tissue before I started treatment. The nuclear molecular imaging revealed the tumor in my right breast. Additional testing showed it was triple-negative.
I wasn’t really surprised by the first breast cancer diagnosis, because my previous doctor had been watching the same suspicious spot in my left breast for several years. Still, I was shocked to discover I had cancer in my right breast, too. I’d been getting regular mammograms for years by then and no one else had noticed it. I couldn’t help wondering if anyone ever would have, if I hadn’t started coming to MD Anderson in 2018 for my 3D mammograms.
Reconstructive surgeons build relationships, too
Another thing that impressed me at MD Anderson was my experience with reconstructive surgeon Dr. Margaret Roubaud. I met with her after the BRCA2 gene dramatically changed my treatment plan. The surgical portion had gone from a relatively simple lumpectomy with breast reduction to a double mastectomy with implants and reconstruction.
I was fairly full-figured before my cancer diagnosis, and stood to lose quite a bit of tissue during the mastectomy. Dr. Roubaud said she’d try to give me back as much volume as possible, but I’d still probably end up with a much smaller cup size than I’d started with. Since my focus was on removing all the cancer, being smaller was not an issue. I just never expected her to express as much concern regarding my feelings as she did.
Caring for the whole person, not just the breast cancer
My impression was that doctors at a cancer hospital would be focused exclusively on the breast cancer and not on my appearance. But Dr. Roubaud did her best to make me feel normal. She said her goal was to make me feel as whole, natural and complete as I had before my breast cancer diagnosis. And I did not expect that.
Today, I can’t imagine going anywhere but MD Anderson. Because I’ve been cancer-free since my double mastectomy. And the level of care I received there was simply amazing. My doctors really cared about how I felt — not just physically, but emotionally, too. That showed me more clearly than anything that at MD Anderson, they’re not just treating the cancer, they’re treating the person.