Where you go first for triple-negative breast cancer treatment matters
Susan Calloway, Ph.D.
I’d hoped that being a non-smoker who breastfed four children and never used hormone replacement therapy might protect me from developing breast cancer. But that disease runs in my family, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised when I received my own diagnosis at age 65.
Because both my mother and her mother had had breast cancer, I’d been vigilant about getting regular mammograms. It was after one of those screenings in late November 2016 that I learned I had stage IIA triple-negative breast cancer. This aggressive cancer lacks the three receptors often used to target cancer, which can make it harder to treat.
Unfortunately, I also received conflicting information from my local doctors in Austin about which treatment I needed first: surgery or chemotherapy. That made me very uneasy, especially when I learned that the process of reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy could take months. I had a lot of unanswered questions. And as a nurse practitioner, I also knew that every decision I made would impact future options for treatment. That’s why I’m glad I went to MD Anderson first.
Expertise and efficiency at MD Anderson West HOuston
It was apparent right from the start that effective and timely communication is a priority at MD Anderson. I called for an appointment on a Thursday and was scheduled to see three physicians at the closest location to my home, MD Anderson West Houston, the very next day.
When I got to MD Anderson that Friday, my appointments were seamless, and the doctors and staff gave me as much time as I needed to ask questions. I met with surgical oncologists Dr. Jessica Suarez Colen and later Dr. Isabelle Bedrosian, along with oncologist Dr. Nikesh Jasani. They said that while having surgery first was not a wrong decision, their preference was to start with chemotherapy. That was my preference as well, so I began treatment in early January 2017.
Fortunately, the tumor in my right breast was very responsive to chemotherapy. After only four infusions, the cancer had shrunk by nearly 85%. That meant I could have tissue-sparing surgery (a lumpectomy) instead of a full mastectomy, which was music to my ears.
Dr. Bedrosian performed the surgery on July 11, 2017, and no cancer was found where the tumor had been. To make sure it was gone, I also had 22 rounds of radiation under the direction of radiation oncologist, Dr. Elizabeth Bloom, at a facility in Lubbock.
My advice to other breast cancer patients
Today, I tell women two things when I find out they’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The first is to take their pain and nausea medications a day or two before starting chemo, just so they can see how they’ll react. If taken with chemotherapy, any adverse effects will likely be attributed to that.
I was prescribed ondansetron for nausea and tramadol for pain. I’d experienced severe abdominal pain after taking ondansetron on a previous occasion. So, when I experienced it again after taking it during chemo, I suspected it was a reaction to the medication, as opposed to the chemotherapy.
The tramadol caused me insomnia and anxiety, a side effect for 10% of patients who take the drug. Once my doctor prescribed different medications, I had no problem. But had I not known about the potential side effects of those medications, I would have suffered needlessly.
The second thing I tell women is to put your health and your life first. Even if MD Anderson is quite a distance from your home, keep your focus on getting the best care. The hassle of travel is nothing compared to the reassurance you’ll feel in knowing you’ve received the best cancer treatment in the world.