February 12, 2015
What a Houston breast cancer survivor learned from her family
BY Barbara Kielaszek
My cancer story began over 40 years ago when my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, my grandmother waited too long to see a doctor. Even though she had a double mastectomy and showed her courageous spirit during her cancer journey, the cancer had spread and my grandmother died within a few years.
About the same time my grandmother received her breast cancer diagnosis, my mom found a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy of her left breast. Ten years later, Mom found a lump in her right breast followed by another mastectomy. It's been 30 years since Mom's second mastectomy -- and she's been cancer-free ever since then.
When I received my own breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 55 I had two examples of tremendous heart, spirit and courage to follow. For me, that made all the difference.
My breast cancer diagnosis
I started getting annual mammograms after my mom received her second diagnosis. Each year, I almost expected to hear the words, "You have cancer."
That phone call finally came in June 2013. I had infiltrating ductal carcinoma. I never experienced denial or anger, although I feared what my diagnosis meant for my two daughters. My main worry was that my daughters might be the fourth generation in the line of breast cancer.
I quickly scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in the Nellie B. Connally Breast Center's Multi Team Clinic. That's where both my doctor and I had always planned for me to go if I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I chose MD Anderson because of its reputation. The location, in my hometown of Houston, was a bonus. I got to go home every day. I continued to work. I could get my radiation treatments during my lunch break.
Coming to MD Anderson
On July 5, I had my first appointment with my team at MD Anderson my oncologist, Carlos Barcenas, M.D.; my radiation oncologist, Benjamin Smith, M.D.; and my surgeon, Isabelle Bedrosian, M.D.
During my appointment, I met with my three doctors together as a group, as well as one-on-one so that I could better understand their role in my care. They left for a short time to talk together. It was reassuring to know that the three doctors actually met face-to-face to discuss their recommendations for me.
Together, we developed my breast cancer treatment plan -- a lumpectomy, genetic testing and radiation therapy.
My breast cancer treatment
My lumpectomy was two weeks after I met with my doctors. The surgery went well, and I was resting at home later that afternoon.
About a month later, on Aug. 2, I underwent genetic testing to see if I carried the BRCA mutation, which puts carriers at increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. I knew that if I tested positive, my daughters also may be more likely to develop cancer. Waiting for these results was one of the hardest parts of having breast cancer. Luckily, I learned that I don't carry the BRCA genetic mutation.
After the genetic testing, I started my four weeks of radiation therapy on a clinical trial with Dr. Smith. When I sat in the women's waiting area before my radiation treatments, I loved reading the notes and cards left by other women who had finished treatment. It also was encouraging to talk to other women who were waiting for their treatments.
Everyone I met at MD Anderson was kind, reassuring and uplifting. The staff helped me see my radiation markings as "war paint" and soothed the burns brought by treatment.
Participating in a clinical trial to avoid breast cancer recurrence
About 10 months after completing radiation, I was invited to participate in a study with Elizabeth Mittendorf, M.D. I'm so glad to be a part of this study which will hopefully lead to a new treatment protocol that will use a vaccine to protect women like me from breast cancer recurrence.
Thanks to everyone at MD Anderson and to my family's love and support, I was able to make cancer history for myself -- and hopefully for other women in the future, too.
Everyone I met at MD Anderson was kind, reassuring and uplifting.