In mid-October 2020, Olivia had noticed a painless lump in her left breast. She was breastfeeding her four-month-old son at the time. Ultrasound results showed she had mastitis, so she took antibiotics for one week.
“During that week, my lump and breast grew and swelled, so my doctor scheduled another ultrasound as well as a biopsy,” she says.
The biopsy confirmed that she had breast cancer. An MRI and PET scan revealed it was stage IV.
“I was devastated,” says Olivia. “The cancer had already spread to my bones and distant lymph nodes.”
Friend’s recommendation leads Olivia to MD Anderson for inflammatory breast cancer treatment
Olivia posted on Facebook to let her friends know about her diagnosis. She asked for prayers and any help they could provide.
“A friend reached out and said she’d also had inflammatory breast cancer, and she was treated at MD Anderson,” says Olivia. “She told me to go to MD Anderson as well.”
Olivia knew MD Anderson was a leader in cancer care, so she called to make an appointment. She had her first appointment in December 2020. She’d already started chemotherapy with a local oncologist in Florida, using TCHP chemotherapy, a combination drug treatment that includes docetaxel, carboplatin and the HER2 monoclonal antibodies, trastuzumab and pertuzumab. Her MD Anderson care team, which included breast medical oncologist Rachel Layman, M.D., confirmed she was on the best treatment plan: chemotherapy, surgery and then radiation therapy. Olivia continued receiving chemotherapy locally.
“I flew to MD Anderson halfway through my chemo treatment for follow-up, and they were guiding all the care I was getting at home,” says Olivia.
Olivia’s tumor responded well to treatment, and she returned to MD Anderson for her first post-chemo scan on March 30, 2021.
Breast cancer surgery at MD Anderson during the COVID-19 pandemic
On April 20, 2021, Olivia had breast cancer surgery at MD Anderson. Breast surgical oncologist Anthony Lucci, M.D., performed a single modified radical mastectomy and removed 37 lymph nodes. The entire surgical process took four hours.
“The surgery was the easiest part of my treatment, but the hardest part was that it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I was alone,” says Olivia.
Following Olivia’s surgery, hospital staff called her husband to tell him everything went great.
“I remember calling my mom in the post-op recovery room, and she was amazed at how alert I was after being under anesthesia,” she says. “I told her everything was good, and MD Anderson took great care of me.”
A little over a week after her surgery, Olivia learned she had a pathological complete response. This meant there was no invasive cancer left in her breast.
“That was even better news than my scans showing no evidence of disease,” says Olivia. “It lowers my chance of recurrence.”
In May 2021, Olivia returned to MD Anderson to start five weeks of radiation under the care of breast radiation oncologist Wendy Woodward, M.D., Ph.D. Her mom and 10-month-old baby joined her, and Olivia’s dad and husband switched off visiting every other week.
“We made it work,” she says.
Side effects from breast cancer treatment
During chemo, Olivia couldn’t eat because nothing tasted good.
“I had an appetite, but I couldn’t palate anything,” she recalls. “Even water tasted awful.”
That side effect went away once she completed chemotherapy.
In May 2023, Olivia had DIEP flap reconstruction surgery in New Orleans. Skin and fat tissue from Olivia’s stomach were used to create a breast on her left side. She had a skin-sparing mastectomy on the right side, in which breast tissue was scooped out and replaced with the tissue flap. Olivia says the breast reconstruction surgery removed scar tissue caused by her earlier treatment, which had caused spasms and muscle twitching. “When I woke up, I immediately felt relief,” Olivia says of the surgery.
Now, she only suffers from chronic fatigue, which she describes as “crippling” some days. When that happens, she and her baby just sit on the floor and watch TV all day because that’s all she can do.
“But there are also days where we go to the trampoline park and jump around, and it’s great,” Olivia adds. “The fatigue comes and goes. I take it one day at a time.”
Taking measures to stay healthy
Olivia still takes the targeted therapy drugs trastuzumab and pertuzumab every three weeks to reduce her chances of cancer recurrence. She will stay on this maintenance therapy indefinitely.
She also takes zoledronic acid intravenously every three months for bone health. Since the cancer had spread to her bones, she’s likely to have bone loss that puts her at risk for issues like broken bones and fractures.
Olivia comes to MD Anderson for scans every three months and continues to show no evidence of disease. She’s happy she feels well enough to watch her baby grow up.
Thankful for support and companionship
Throughout her treatment, Olivia’s faith gave her strength. Her church group and family have been very supportive.
“My husband has been amazing through it all,” she says. “My parents only live a half mile from us, and my son loves visiting them. On days where I can barely get off the couch, my mom’s right there to take him.”
Olivia keeps up with other survivors in MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult Facebook group, she attends local support groups, and she’s developed friendships with other inflammatory breast cancer survivors.
She shares this advice for other young cancer patients: “Take it minute by minute. Some days will be hard, and all you can do is focus on getting to the next minute. But you’ll get through it. It does get better.”