My family is no stranger to cancer. In 2005, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and in 2006, my older sister faced a diagnosis of lobular breast cancer.
Although both lived in Florida, I insisted they come to Houston to be treated at MD Anderson. I wanted the best possible outcome for my precious family, and I felt that MD Anderson was an integral part of that plan.
As a registered nurse and the caregiver for my mother and sister, I was continually impressed with the medical care they received at MD Anderson, as well as the extraordinary compassion and attention of the staff members.
Then, in 2006, I became a patient at MD Anderson.
Choosing MD Anderson for breast cancer screening
On a routine visit to MD Anderson with my sister, I mentioned to her oncologist that I’d noticed an unusual discharge from my nipple. She advised me to make an appointment immediately to see Therese Bevers, M.D., in the Cancer Prevention Center. When a world-class oncologist makes such a strong recommendation, I heed their advice.
My diagnostic testing and evaluation with Dr. Bevers turned out to be nothing serious. But based on my experiences and the specialized expertise of the radiologists, I decided to begin getting routine mammograms at MD Anderson.
In 2012, my mammogram showed an area that necessitated a biopsy. Fortunately, the biopsy came back normal, but three years later, Dr. Bevers noted a suspicious area in the opposite breast. A second biopsy showed abnormal cellular changes, or atypical hyperplasia, but not cancer.
At that point, I began to accept that I had an increased risk for breast cancer.
Opting to take tamoxifen
The previous year, Dr. Bevers had explained that my family and personal history placed me at a higher than average risk and discussed possibly starting a preventive therapy medication, such as tamoxifen, to reduce that risk. Back then, I hadn’t yet embraced the reality.
After all, I was in great health, led an active lifestyle, was at an ideal weight, ate a healthy diet and generally did all the right things to ensure that I would remain healthy for a long time.
However, the abnormal biopsy made me realize that it was time to get with the program. I discussed my options for preventive therapy once again with Dr. Bevers.
She explained that women like me with atypical hyperplasia are more likely to develop breast cancer, and that increased risk can last for more than 25-30 years. For women at my level of risk, taking the hormone therapy drug tamoxifen for five years can reduce that risk by 75%. Better yet, those benefits can last long after I stop taking tamoxifen.
After that, I did my own research and had some long conversations with a friend that is a breast cancer researcher. I came to understand that my risk of breast cancer will be lowered significantly by taking tamoxifen for five years. I feel so fortunate that I have this opportunity to take active steps to ensure my continued good health.
Life with tamoxifen
In fall 2015, I began taking tamoxifen as a preventive medication and began having MRIs as part of my annual breast screening. I’ve experienced side effects such as hot flashes, but women “of a certain age” get those anyway!
My hot flashes and periodic insomnia increased somewhat after I began the treatment, but I really look at these symptoms as an inconvenience, not a problem. My sister is now in the MD Anderson survivorship program and reminds me that these symptoms are merely the price I must pay for remaining healthy. I totally agree.
Having watched my sister undergo breast cancer treatment, I know I’ve made a sound choice. I’ll gladly take a few hot flashes over the reality of a full-course breast cancer treatment, including the potential for a bad outcome. I feel so grateful to the researchers for their work developing this and other similar medications, and the women that participated in the clinical trials.