Why I’m glad I chose MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment
Eva María Cárdenas
With cancer treatment — as with life — you can only make decisions based on what you know at any given moment. But new information becomes available every day, so you have to stay flexible. That’s why I’m glad I went to MD Anderson for my breast cancer treatment.
I live in Austin, and when I was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, a lot of people asked why I wasn’t getting treated locally. But I’ve known for years that MD Anderson is the best cancer hospital in the world. And it’s only two and half hours away. So, why would I go anywhere else?
My unexpected breast cancer diagnosis
I found out I had breast cancer just by chance. I’d turned 40 in June 2019, and decided it was time to reboot my life. That process started with getting an MRI of my left shoulder, because it had been bothering me for a while. Since I was going to be at a local imaging center anyway, I figured I might as well get my first mammogram, too.
I got a call from the imaging center a couple of days later. The radiologists had seen something suspicious in my right breast and wanted me to come back in for a second look. I had another mammogram and a breast biopsy within a week. When the results came back, I learned I had ductal carcinoma in situ — a non-invasive type of breast cancer.
When I knew I’d made the right decision about breast cancer treatment
I was pretty shocked, because I hadn’t had any breast cancer symptoms. But I got an appointment a few days later at MD Anderson. The first thing my doctors there did was re-run all my scans and tests to confirm my diagnosis. Then, they ordered additional tests, to make sure they had a complete picture before making any treatment recommendations.
Finally, all of my doctors met with me at the same time, which was pretty amazing. Not everyone gets to do that. I ended up being able to ask questions of my entire care team at once: surgical oncologist Dr. Mediget Teshome, medical oncologist Dr. Senthil Damodaran and radiation oncologist Dr. Karen Hoffman. So, when I left that meeting, I had all the information I needed.
It turned out that while my initial diagnosis had been generally correct, the details were a bit more complicated. My Austin doctors had only expressed concern about a single cluster of cells about 9 mm across, or about a third of an inch wide.
But imaging done at MD Anderson revealed I had lots of little clusters of cancer cells sprinkled around my right breast, not just the one — making my “area of concern” essentially the greater part of my right breast. There were so many little white dots on the image that it looked like a solar system.
At that moment, I knew I’d made the right decision.
My breast cancer treatment
Fortunately, all of my MD Anderson doctors agreed on their treatment recommendation: a simple mastectomy. The cancer hadn’t spread to any lymph nodes or to anywhere outside my breast, so I wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
When I first heard the word “mastectomy,” I felt a little scared. I thought, “Really? My only options are all or nothing?” But it wasn’t because of my doctors’ lack of skill or expertise; it was just because of my particular situation. The other option was to monitor the DCIS with close imaging on a clinical trial. But they all agreed that my best chance of being — and staying — cancer-free was to have my breast removed.
The wisdom of this plan became clearer after Dr. Damodaran asked me a single question. He said, “Do you really want to be waking up every day, wondering, ‘Is this the day that one of those spots turns into cancer?’” And he was exactly right.
Here, I had a chance to be super aggressive. So, what was I waiting for? I already struggle with an anxiety disorder. Did I really want to keep worrying about this? After that, the answer was obvious, so it was full steam ahead.
My life now: grateful to be cancer-free
In the end, I opted to have both breasts removed — but not because any type of genetic issue made it medically necessary. I was just worried about symmetry, and I wanted my breasts to be even.
Dr. Teshome performed my double mastectomy on Sept. 16, 2019. I had reconstruction in January 2020. Nipple tattooing will be the last step in my recovery, but I can get that done later on.
Right now, I’m just grateful to be cancer-free. Because the way I see it, I only had cancer for about six weeks. Before that, I didn’t even know it was there, so that doesn’t count. And the moment I came out of surgery, the cancer was gone. So, if you told me that it was all just a dream, I’d believe you. Because there are whole days now that I forget I even had cancer. And that is a true blessing.