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.
Rashe Bowie hadn’t been working at her current company very long when she and her colleagues played Two Truths and a Lie during an offsite meeting. When it was her turn, she shared her son’s name, that she’d been in pageants growing up and that she was undergoing chemotherapy.
The lie, they guessed, was the chemo part. But the lie was her son’s name.
“I’m undergoing chemo for breast cancer, and this is a wig I’m wearing,” she revealed.
“They were in total disbelief,” recalls Rashe, who was 37 years old at the time of her diagnosis.
The company’s CEO told Rashe to take time off if she needed to.
But she has yet to accept that offer. A single mom to a high school senior, Rashe never missed a day of work while undergoing 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation.
An unexpected breast cancer diagnosis
Rashe’s breast cancer diagnosis had surprised her. She’d felt the lump in her left breast a year earlier, but assumed it was benign like a lump she’d found at age 25.
When Rashe and her son moved to Houston in the fall of 2013, the lump started growing aggressively. That’s when Rashe finally saw a doctor. A biopsy revealed breast cancer -- invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2, grade 3.
Just a few days after her diagnosis, Rashe’s dad died from surgery complications. “It was a lot to deal with at once,” she says. “My cancer diagnosis didn’t fully register, but I was scared.”
Finding comfort at MD Anderson
After her dad’s funeral, Rashe scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, not far from where she lives and works.
She immediately trusted her medical team -- oncologist Mark Lewis, M.D.; surgical oncologist Michelle Shen, M.D., who performed her mastectomy; and plastic surgeon Victor Hassid, M.D., who implanted her expander. “I put so much faith in them, as if they were a religion,” Rashe says. “They made me so comfortable every step of the way.”
This included enabling her to work through chemo and radiation. “When we talked about my treatment plan, I knew I couldn’t quit working,” she says. “I had to provide for my son and keep life as normal as possible for him.”
Working and parenting during cancer treatment
A business development manager, Rashe travels 30 to 40 percent of the time, and she didn’t want to feel sick during those trips or miss work. She also wanted to be there for her son, who was playing on his new high school’s varsity basketball team with hopes of playing in college. This required “learning to live a balanced life,” as Rashe says – and some careful planning.
If her son had a game on Friday night, Rashe got her chemo infusion in Sugar Land on Friday morning. That way, she could rest when the fatigue hit over the weekend. Other times, she got chemo infusions at MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus on Friday night, Saturday or Sunday.
Toward the end of chemo, Rashe got a stronger cocktail of drugs. She scheduled the infusion so the fatigue wouldn’t hit until the end of her business trip. “It took a toll on my body at the end, but I was finally done,” she says.
When it came time for radiation, Rashe took the earliest appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land – 6 or 6:30 a.m. – so she could be at work by 8 a.m.
“It can be done. It’s all about how you look at it,” says Rashe, who credits her positive outlook to her faith and strong support network. “What I was going through with cancer is secondary to what I have at home.”
And what Rashe had at home was a son who thrived despite her diagnosis. He received a full scholarship to play basketball at Rice University.
A world of possibilities
Rashe will finally take time off for breast reconstruction in October. “I don’t want to be off for long,” she admits. “But I’m looking at it like I’m getting something back.”
For Rashe, now an empty-nester, that something is full of possibilities.
“There’s so much more I want to do personally and professionally after cancer,” she says. “I’m thinking about what I’ll do for my 40th birthday. I hope it requires a passport.”
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