Triple-negative breast cancer survivor: MD Anderson is ‘a hospital like no other’
Before moving to Hong Kong with my husband for his job in 2004, I was an ER and neurosurgery nurse in the Texas Medical Center. I really liked the hospital where I worked. So, when I was diagnosed with stage III triple-negative breast cancer in December 2021, I naturally sought help from my former employer first.
I was aware that MD Andersonspecialized in cancer care. But I also thought it must be a really sad place. Now that I’ve actually been to MD Anderson, I know it’s anything but sad. It’s happy and hopeful. And today, I’m so grateful to be receiving my triple-negative breast cancer treatment there that I often find myself walking through its doors, thinking, “Oh, thank God I get to be here!”
Surgeon’s stellar reputation leads to cancer care closer to home
At the time, I was living only 10 minutes from there, and I learned that patients can get everything they need at that location except for surgical procedures. So, while my lumpectomy and breast reconstruction had to be performed at MD Anderson’sTexas Medical Center Campus, I’ve been able to receive all of my other treatments and checkups closer to home.
MD Anderson The Woodlands: a hospital like no other
I can’t say enough good things about the faculty and staff at MD Anderson The Woodlands. The atmosphere there is unlike any other hospital I’ve ever seen. It’s bright and airy, and everyone really seems to care about me.
I also love the appointment setup, where I meet first with a nurse, then a physician assistant, and finally a doctor. When my doctor walks in, they’re already completely up to speed on my case and aware of any issues I might be having. It’s very efficient.
Why I admire my MD Anderson doctors
I appreciate how thorough my doctors are. After my diagnosis last year, I had chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. But because about 22% of the cancer cells in the tumor Dr. FitzSullivan removed were still alive, I wasn’t considered cancer-free, even after finishing radiation.
The standard of care for triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t call for regular scans. But Dr. Oke shared what to look for in case the cancer spreads. She explained that triple-negative breast cancer tends to move to the lungs, liver and bone first. So, I should stay alert for any hip pain that couldn’t be alleviated, yellow eyes or skin (jaundice), and unexplained headaches. I was grateful for the heads-up.
Lymphedema-reduction clinical trial proved to be a highlight of my cancer treatment experience
Aside from the breast reduction surgery I got as an unexpected side benefit of breast cancer treatment, one of the best parts of my experience was getting to join a clinical trial.
The Saphire clinical trial at MD Anderson is investigating whether lymphedema — or tissue swelling due to the removal of lymph nodes — can be reduced in breast cancer patients if their radiation therapy is completed over a shorter number of weeks than usual. My radiation oncologist, Dr. Pamela Schlembach, explained all the details.
I told her I’d be happy to do anything that would advance breast cancer treatment and research. But my random assignment to the “shorter” arm of the trial meant I finished my treatments in four weeks rather than six, which I really appreciated.
I also don’t have any lingering side effects. I lost my hair from the chemotherapy and developed skin blisters and fatigue from the radiation treatments. I also have a little tenderness in my underarm area from the surgery. But I do physical therapy exercises to stay flexible. And I’m tolerating my current medications just fine.
Choosing not to let fear rule me
I’d be lying if I said that cancer didn’t worry me anymore. One of the hallmarks of triple-negative breast cancer is that it grows really rapidly. In the six months between my totally normal mammogram and my diagnosis, my tumor grew to the size of a AA battery.
Fortunately, pembrolizumab has been a miracle drug for the people like me that it works for. And I know all the things my doctors have recommended — chemo, radiation, surgery, and now immunotherapy — will lower my chances of a recurrence. Being worried all the time is not a very productive way to live anyway. So, I try not to let the fear rule me.
Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how many wonderful caregivers were put in my path at MD Anderson. I was so frightened at the time of my diagnosis! Now, thanks to the care and treatment I’m receiving there, I feel like I’m thriving despite cancer — and I’m ready to take on the world.