Treating all cancers, including breast cancer, is a very technical undertaking. Advanced equipment—from Tomosynthesis 3D mammography in imaging through Elekta Infinity radiation therapy—and ever-evolving chemotherapy drugs and medicines are precise and specialized tools used to fight the disease. It's a unique undertaking, too. Because each cancer is an accumulation of random mutations, each cancer is unique, so each treatment plan is unique.
More unique than the cancer or the treatment plan, though, is the person with the cancer. Nationally, 12% of American women will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. At Augusta Health, about 140 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year, 20% of all cancers diagnosed at Augusta Health Cancer Center. But those in cancer treatment aren't statistics—they are women.
Patti Anthony of Staunton is one of those women.
Patti's journey began in early February with her annual mammogram. It has continued over the past eight months, and will continue for several yet to come. Throughout the process, she has been guided by two women—Kelley Brooks, Breast Care Coordinator in Women's Imaging, and Donna Berdeaux, BSN, RN, Breast Cancer Navigator. The continuum of care they provide is part of the Breast Care Center of Excellence at Augusta Health. The certification framework provided to Augusta Health through the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC) encourages the development of centers of excellence to provide the best possible care and outcomes for women like Patti, who are dealing with breast cancer or other disease of the breast.
After her initial mammogram, Patti received a call-back from Kelley. "I wasn't actually too stressed when I was called back," said Patti. "My mother had breast cancer, so I've had a mammogram every year since I turned 30. This was the third time I'd been called back after a mammogram, and I knew they had to take another look and just be sure, to rule out cancer. I was thinking it was OK, that the call back would be the end of it as it was before."
As it turned out, the second mammogram a week later did not rule out cancer. "It showed two tiny spots, like grains of sand, that weren't there before." Given the option of having a biopsy or waiting six months for a repeat mammogram, Patti chose a biopsy, "without even thinking about it; it just came out of my mouth. I decided later it was God's way of protecting me."
Before she left the office after the second mammogram, Kelley had the biopsy set with Dr. Rebecca Dameron the next day. "Kelley was doing everything she could to make the situation as easy as possible for me," said Patti. "The hardest part is waiting, and Kelley understands that."
Kelley does indeed understand. "I review the screening mammograms, and personally make all the calls to anyone who needs additional imaging," explained Kelley. "Then, if the patient needs a biopsy or surgical consultation, I set that up as soon as possible. It's my goal to reduce the number of sleepless nights a patient will have, and to make sure that during the diagnosis process, there is one person they can talk to, not six different people."
Although it had been Patti's third time called back, it was her first biopsy. Then, it was her first cancer diagnosis—DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ, a noninvasive type of breast cancer), and a lumpectomy was recommended. When the pathology came back, a second cancer that had not shown anywhere else was discovered, a HER2 positive tumor (an aggressive type of breast cancer) that had reached a lymph node. A second lumpectomy followed, and Patti started chemotherapy at the beginning of May. She finished her chemo in September, and now will receive Herceptin, a treatment to reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence, for another 10 months.
Even though her mother had breast cancer, the diagnosis was not expected. "I don't know that anyone is prepared for a catastrophic diagnosis," said Patti. "So it's a little bit of deer in the headlights at first. But life doesn't promise us that we're exempt from trials and troubles. I just decided to deal with it, take care of it, trust God and live my life as fully as I can in spite of it."
Patti notes that a vital and significant person in dealing with it has been Breast Navigator Donna Berdeaux, BSN RN. They met in outpatient surgery just before the first lumpectomy when Donna came by to introduce herself, and she has been by Patti's side ever since.
"She (Donna) wrapped herself around me like a security blanket. She came in and took over taking care of me. She has been at every appointment since my first lumpectomy, like she is for every patient. Any question I have, she knows the answers or finds it. She makes appointments for me. At my first appointment with the oncologist, Dr. Palmer, she took notes. I was so overwhelmed with emotions at that appointment, that I would have no clue about my course of treatment without Donna's notes. I know I can call her at any time, and she will pick up the phone and she will be there for me. She does this for every breast cancer patient. I don't know how she does it, but I am grateful that she does," said Patti.
Donna, a breast cancer survivor herself, realizes her importance to her patients. "I tell my patients, I will be with you every step of the way, and I don't make promises I can't keep. At each moment, they are my only patient," said Donna, who usually has 7-10 patients in radiation, a dozen in chemotherapy and up to five just going into surgery. "I know that in many ways, I am like a life preserver they can hold on to, so I stay with them. I tell each one, 'Even when you ring the bell (ringing the bell in the cancer center signals significant milestones such as the end of treatment), you will always be a part of our family."
Patti will continue her journey for several months to come, but believes that "cancer isn't who I am or who I'm going to be. I'm trusting God to use this experience to help me help someone else. I believe that, as a result of going through this, something good will happen in the future. He's going to use this thing that was meant for bad, and use it for good."
To that end, four things Patti would like all women to know:
- Get your annual screening mammogram! Early detection is the key! Neither of Patti's cancers could be felt by physical exam. One was discovered in the mammogram, and the other was so new it was only discovered in pathology—but that one was so aggressive it had already made its way to a lymph node.
- If called back for a second mammogram, do not panic, but go. The first two times she was called back, it ruled out cancer; it could be positive news. In fact, for the 12 months ending July, 2016, almost 95% of the call back mammograms at Augusta Health ruled out a cancer diagnosis.
- Use your experiences to learn about yourself and others. She has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support she has had from family, friends, co-workers and those she attends church with. "When something like this happens, people let you know how important you are to them. It's both touching and humbling."
- Support and encourage each other. Because of her treatment, she has made new friends and created bonds with other women with breast cancer that would have never happened if they all hadn't been in treatment together. It is a sisterhood that has blessed her.