When Dorothy Paterson discovered a lump in her right breast while showering in 1998, she didn’t believe it at first.
“I tried to wish it away, but then felt it again the next day,” she says. “I’d had a clear mammogram just the year before, but something was not quite right.”
So, Dorothy went to her general practitioner. After a number of tests, he diagnosed her with invasive ductal carcinoma. Dorothy knew exactly what to do next. She had heard positive stories about MD Anderson for years, and several of her friends urged her to make an appointment here immediately.
An HER2+ breast cancer diagnosis
At MD Anderson, Dorothy received additional testing, which revealed she had a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer known as HER2+. The tumor in Dorothy’s right breast measured 5x8 centimeters (or 2” x 3¼”). It had reached stage III in less than a year. But MD Anderson offered Dorothy treatment — and more importantly, hope.
“I will never forget that momentous day,” she says. “My parents were babysitting on Jan. 15, 1998, when my husband and I went for my first appointment. And when we came home, they were so confused because we were all smiles. My mother asked, ‘So, you don't have cancer?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do. But we have found the right place and the right doctor. He will leave no stone unturned to give me the best quality of care possible.’”
Starting breast cancer treatment at MD Anderson
Dorothy had a bilateral mastectomy with breast reconstruction. She also had 27 lymph nodes removed, two of which were cancerous. After surgery came eight rounds of chemotherapy — a combination of 5-flouraurasil, doxorubicin (Adriamycin), and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan).
“Adriamycin is known among patients as the ‘red devil,’” Dorothy says. “It is extremely strong and toxic, but that’s what I needed. And I was so thankful it was available to get rid of that insidious disease.”
Dealing with breast cancer treatment side effects
Dorothy experienced a number of side effects from chemotherapy, including bone loss.
“But the worst part of going through chemo at age 42 is that it causes warp-speed menopause,” Dorothy says. “So what normally takes 10 or 15 years to happen takes place in just a few months. I was having up to 200 hot flashes a day, but you just have to suffer through it.”
To take her mind off of treatment and its unpleasant side effects, Dorothy found refuge in exercise. She started running, swimming and cycling. She even rode in the 180-mile MS 150 bicycle ride from Houston to Austin after she finished treatment, and continued to do so for 12 years after that.
“I call it my ‘Vitamin X,’” Dorothy says. “Exercise is my antidepressant, part of my self-care and a spiritual practice. I made it a priority, and it remains the biggest gift I can give to myself, my family and my friends.”
Sharing hope in the Breast Center and beyond
Dorothy has also found great satisfaction in volunteering at MD Anderson. Two years after finishing treatment, she retired from her 21-year career as a geologist to become a full-time advocate and volunteer “to do whatever I can to end cancer forever!”
“I was one of the original Pink Ribbon Volunteers in the Breast Center,” she says. “I began serving in this special program when it started in 2000 and did it for 10 years, listening to patients, encouraging them and being the face of someone who is thriving after making it through that very scary time. I must have flashed more than 500 women in that private room there, just to show them what real, live breast reconstruction looks like.”
Today, Dorothy continues to share hope with every MD Anderson cancer patient she meets. She finished her own breast cancer treatments here in April 1999, and has been cancer-free ever since.
“Keeping their hope alive fills me up and turns my story and all I went through into something so positive,” she says. “It’s been such a gift for me to be able to give back to others.”