A Journey of Strength Through Breast Cancer
When Caroline of Maryland turned 40 years old in April of 2018, she knew that it was time to schedule her first mammogram. Although she performed a self-breast exam at home and didn’t feel any lumps or abnormalities, she had a family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Her physician urged her to schedule a mammogram.
At the time of her mammogram, Sonya Kella, MD, breast radiologist and medical director of women’s imaging for Adventist HealthCare, and her team at Shady Grove Breast Center investigated Caroline’s family history and found she had a high lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Yearly breast MRI screening, in addition to mammography, was recommended because of her risk.
In the early summer of 2020, Caroline was due for a routine screening MRI. The COVID pandemic had already begun, leaving many concerned about their health and safety, especially when it came to receiving preventive care. The thought of delaying her MRI crossed her mind, and Caroline wondered if she should wait until the risk of COVID-19 decreased. She discussed with her doctors who stressed how important it was that she schedule her appointment, despite COVID, due to her risk. Caroline agreed and decided to not delay care any longer. When the results of her MRI came back, they were abnormal, and she needed a biopsy in both breasts to determine the cause of the abnormality.
On June 22, 2020, the results of Caroline’s biopsies came back. She was diagnosed with stage one Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) of the left breast. This is the most common type of breast cancer. She had a high-risk area in the right breast which Dr. Kella explained also required surgical removal.
“The moment you hear those words, you get the feeling as if everything in the world has stopped. Time, space - everything was frozen. The first thing I thought was, I’m going to die,” says Caroline about hearing her diagnosis for the first time.
Caroline expressed that while going through the biopsies, MRIs, and mammograms, the warm and welcoming personalities of the staff was an important part of the experience for her.
“Dr. Kella truly performed outstanding and compassionate care. I'm originally from a Latin American country, and doctors there develop close relationships with their patients. I hadn’t been able to find that until I met the team at Shady Grove Breast Center."
After overcoming the initial shock, Caroline turned to Surupa Sen Gupta, MD, a breast surgeon, at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Cancer and the Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center to come up with a course of action that worked best for her. She opted for breast conservation and decided to have a lumpectomy in the left breast and an excisional biopsy in the right breast. In the left breast, the lymph node closest to the mass needed to be removed. In July 2020, about a month after being diagnosed, Caroline successfully underwent surgery.
Based on the small size and less aggressive cell type of her cancer, she was able to avoid chemotherapy.
“The goal of regular and high-risk screening is to have outcomes such as these where patients receive minimal treatment and therapies. Caroline is a perfect example of a patient that benefitted from early detection such that she did not require chemotherapy to be cured,” explained Dr. Kella.
After surgery, to ensure the cancer was gone Caroline underwent radiation therapy. Receiving treatment is difficult under normal circumstances, however, navigating it through COVID-19 has been especially hard. Because of safety guidelines and visitor restrictions, she was not able to have her family there to support her through surgery or radiation therapy, leaving her to rely heavily on the staff for comfort.
Along with radiation, Caroline received occupational therapy twice a week to regain movement on the left arm following the lymph node removal. The Aquilino Cancer Center provided Caroline with a holistic approach to ensure all care was provided in one place. She was able to receive radiation on the first floor and occupational therapy on the third floor. Also available was access to resources such as a dietician and a social worker, among others.
“You’re not just a number with this team. People know your name and your story,” says Caroline.
Through her breast cancer journey, Caroline has a new perspective on preventive care. Her advice to other women is that instead of approaching your breast exam with fear, try approaching it as a form of self-discovery and love.
“Be familiar with your body so that you can recognize when something is wrong. Don’t let the fear of finding something prevent you from getting a necessary screening test.”