August 22, 2018
Inflammatory breast cancer survivor: Why I give back to MD Anderson
BY Jenée Bobbora
After being greeted by the breast cancer survivors who volunteer in MD Anderson’s Breast Center on my first day as a patient, I always knew I wanted to give back in that same way one day.
Those beautiful women let me know that a breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t going to be an insurmountable obstacle — because they had all been through one, too, and survived. They were clearly thriving, so that provided tangible evidence it was possible.
Just to have another person saying, “Look. I’ve been through all of this myself, and you’ll get through it, too,” was so powerful. That was a message I really needed to hear, as I’d just been diagnosed with stage IIIc inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and particularly aggressive form of the disease.
My inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis
My gynecologist had dismissed the pain and swelling in my left breast as a reaction to birth control pills. He refused to perform any type of scan, even after I specifically requested one. That didn’t sit right with me, so I saw another doctor. Thinking I had an infection, he prescribed an antibiotic and said to come back for a biopsy if my symptoms hadn’t resolved in a couple of weeks.
Getting conflicting information from two different doctors isn’t very reassuring, so I called MD Anderson. It was only after doctors there conducted their own tests that I learned the truth: at age 32, I had inflammatory breast cancer.
Why the right diagnosis matters
At MD Anderson, my inflammatory breast cancer treatment consisted of six months of outpatient chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and six weeks of radiation therapy. I also took a drug called tamoxifen in pill form for 10 years. And I’ve shown no evidence of disease since 2003.
But if my cancer had been just a little more advanced, it would have been considered stage IV, and my care would have been palliative instead of curative. That’s why getting the right diagnosis is so important. Luckily, right around the time of my diagnosis, Dr. Kelly Hunt and some of her colleagues at MD Anderson had just published a study that showed that chemotherapy, radiation and surgery could still result in a cure, even for women with stage IIIc inflammatory breast cancer. And my doctor insisted that my cancer was at stage IIIc, not IV.
Why I opted not to get breast implants
That distinction ended up making all the difference, so I am beyond grateful that I was treated at MD Anderson. It felt like everyone there wanted me to be cured just as badly as I did. Even my radiation oncologist, Dr. Tom Buchholz — now the medical director at Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Diego — said he subscribed to the “big hammer” theory of cancer treatment: you grab the biggest hammer you can and hit it hard the first time.
Reconstructive surgery would have required my doctors to use some of the same skin and tissue affected by the cancer, risking a recurrence. That’s why I opted not to get breast implants after my mastectomy.
Why I volunteer with myCancerConnection
Side effects from cancer treatment can be very unpleasant, so having the support of other women is really important. Talk between breast cancer survivors becomes intimate very quickly, and MD Anderson made it easy to connect with women I’d have an easy time relating to, either because we were the same age, had been diagnosed with the same type of cancer at the same stage or were from the same part of the country.
The women I met inspired me and helped me through treatment, and I wanted to help other women, too. So, I eagerly signed up to volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community of patients, survivors and caregivers who have been there.
I am honored to meet with other women who’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer, to let them know that MD Anderson has an entire community of people available to support them and to share my own story. After all, with the help of the women I’ve met and my care team at MD Anderson, I’m living proof that it’s possible to get through this.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Getting the right diagnosis is so important.