After finding lumps in my right breast and lymph node area in January 2014, I was diagnosed with stage three triple-negative breast cancer. This was a tremendous shock because I'd had a clear mammogram only six months earlier.
To fight my very aggressive, very high-risk cancer, I immediately began five months of intense chemotherapy, followed by two surgeries and six weeks of radiation. Currently, there is no targeted therapy for triple-negative breast cancer, which made my diagnosis especially daunting.
MD Anderson's no-lose option for triple-negative breast cancer treatment
It was supremely comforting to be at MD Anderson. Triple-negative breast cancer is rare and difficult to treat, but MD Anderson is focusing on improving treatment through their Moon Shots Program, an effort to reduce cancer deaths.
Because I was blessed to be treated at MD Anderson, I felt confident I could rely completely on the expertise of my incomparable dream team of doctors -- Sharon Giordano, M.D., Beth Mittendorf, M.D., Ph.D., Eric Strom, M.D., and Melissa Crosby, M.D. My outstanding medical team fully rewarded my trust. By tweaking the approach of a cooperative group study presented shortly before my diagnosis, they provided me a true win-win option.
A standard triple-negative chemo regimen is 12 weeks of taxol, followed by four doses of adriamycin and cytoxan. In the new study, doctors gave patients an additional chemo drug called carboplatin. The study showed that this treatment was successful for 54 percent of women who took carboplatin, compared to only 40 percent of those who didn't take carboplatin. Yet, because carboplatin is highly toxic, some women could not tolerate it and had to stop their chemotherapy early.
My brilliant team addressed this problem by reversing the order of the drugs. It was a no-lose option I enthusiastically embraced. Had I not been able to tolerate carboplatin, I could have dropped it, but still completed the full standard course of chemotherapy.
Life after triple-negative breast cancer treatment
I finished my chemotherapy at the end of June. The tumors responded the way we had hoped. Thankfully, chemotherapy cleared all of the cancer in my lymph nodes, and left only 2 percent of the tumor in my breast. My extremely positive response reduced my likelihood of recurrence from about 60 percent to 15 to 20 percent. The only side effect I still suffer is neuropathy in my hands and feet.
Now, I only can play a waiting game. It is difficult to hear some other cancer survivors complain about "having" to continue to take a daily pill to prevent recurrence. I -- and I am sure most with triple-negative tumors -- would be thrilled to have that option.
Because I lacked that option, I approached the end of radiation -- the end of my active treatment -- with dread, not with elation. In fact, the day before my last radiation was one of my lowest points emotionally during my entire nine months of treatment. For those many months, my primary focus had been fighting my cancer aggressively.
I felt sad that I could not continue working to prevent recurrence.
Plus, my wonderful MD Anderson team had become like a second family I knew I would miss seeing regularly. So I was ambivalent about ringing the bell and did not really feel like celebrating.
Surprisingly, though, I rebounded fairly quickly, adapting to my new normal. Most importantly, I am hopeful for the future and confident that through its Moon Shots Program, MD Anderson will find a successful targeted treatment for triple-negative breast cancer and end the waiting game for future triple-negative breast cancer patients.
Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are two areas MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Breast and Ovarian Cancers Moon Shot.