August 07, 2018
Triple-negative breast cancer survivor: 'MD Anderson is my life'
BY Uniqua Smith, Ph.D.
Over the last two decades, I’ve learned a lot about MD Anderson as a caregiver, an employee, and most recently, a triple-negative breast cancer patient.
I joined MD Anderson in 2004 as a nurse in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit. I decided to become an oncology nurse after witnessing the care my aunt received at MD Anderson several years earlier. I spent many days with her at the hospital during her breast cancer treatment, and I was so touched by everyone’s bedside manner. Her care team was not only attentive to her needs, but also supported me as I learned to care for her.
I spent the first 10 years of my nursing career at MD Anderson providing patients and caregivers the same level of care that my aunt and I received. In my current role, I manage a program that aims to further improve our quality of nursing through evidence-based practices, and I mentor nurses across MD Anderson.
My triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis
I’ve dedicated my life to MD Anderson because I believe in our mission to end cancer and the work we do. And now, as I undergo treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, I’ve put my trust into MD Anderson again.
Last Presidents’ Day, I felt a lump at the base of my breast during my morning stretch. Even though I’d had a clean mammogram after my 40th birthday just 7 months earlier, I knew I had to take this discovery seriously. The next day, I had another mammogram and a core biopsy at MD Anderson’s Undiagnosed Breast Clinic. The following day, my diagnosis was confirmed.
My tumor was small – only 1.2 cm – so I was hoping to just undergo a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. But triple-negative breast cancer tends to be more aggressive and more challenging to treat than other types of breast cancer, and my tumor was close to my chest wall. So, my breast surgeon, Dr. Abigail Caudle, and my medical oncologist, Dr. Meghan Karuturi said I also needed to undergo 16 cycles of chemotherapy before I could undergo a mastectomy. They recommended the standard chemotherapy protocol for triple-negative breast cancer: a cocktail of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, as well as paclitaxel.
My triple-negative breast cancer treatment
In March, I started the Adriamycin and Cytoxan cocktail. After I finished four cycles, I began taking 12 rounds of Taxol.
The side effects were really tough. I dealt with fatigue, appetite loss, hair loss, body aches, constipation, and the chemotherapy even turned my nails and the bottom of my feet purple. I also lost all of my nasal hair so I’m always blowing my nose, and now I’m starting to experience mild neuropathy.
To make my recovery from chemotherapy easier, I scheduled my infusions for Friday mornings to allow myself time to recover during the weekend. I have to admit that at one point, I didn’t want to do it anymore. What motivated me to push through to the end was counting down to the day I’d get to ring the bell to mark the end of my chemotherapy treatment. On July 27, I rang the bell after my last Taxol infusion. No words can describe the joy I felt that moment, or what it meant to ring the bell surrounded by my MD Anderson friends and colleagues.
I’m currently waiting to undergo a double mastectomy on Aug. 29. I decided to have both breasts removed after genetic testing revealed I carry the BRCA1 mutation, which puts me at an increased risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. I underwent genetic testing right after my diagnosis because in addition to my aunt and myself, I’ve had several relatives who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer over the years. I also plan to have Dr. Andrea Milbourne perform a laparoscopic procedure to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes either before or during my breast reconstruction surgery, which plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Villa hopes to do in 2019.
It put me at ease to know that all of my physicians have worked together for years and collaborated to develop my treatment plan. It’s one of the things that makes MD Anderson so special and truly sets it apart for breast cancer treatment.
Using my breast cancer diagnosis for good
I now have deepened insight into MD Anderson and plan on using that knowledge to help our patients by sharing my perspective as a member of the Patient and Family Advisor Program.
I also better understand what survivors endure. I used to think that patients who are able to walk the skybridge or were in high spirits weren’t in much pain. But I now realize that cancer pain is a constant struggle for many of us and you don’t have to look in pain to feel it.
I hope that sharing my story compels others to recognize the importance of proactive health care. Get your mammograms. Know your body so you can recognize changes and take immediate action. My prognosis is good because I caught my disease early, and my decision to undergo genetic testing is saving the lives of other family members who discovered that they, too, carry the BRCA1 mutation.
So, if you ever find yourself in my shoes, remember to trust your doctors, stay positive and focus on the end goal.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Trust your doctors, stay positive and focus on the end goal.
Uniqua Smith, Ph.D.
Nursing Administrator & Survivor