Published on September 16, 2022

Cancer group

Leaning on Faith to Find a Purpose

Brenda Akstulewicz of Gaithersburg, Maryland, always scheduled an annual mammogram with her friend. In 2020, she delayed her mammogram twice for fear of exposing her elderly father to COVID-19. She kept her third rescheduled appointment in September 2020, and a few days after her mammogram, she received a phone call asking her to return to the office.

An ultrasound and biopsy confirmed what the radiologist saw was cancer.

Brenda was referred to Surupa Sen Gupta, MD, a breast surgeon at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center and Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center. Dr. Sen Gupta diagnosed Brenda with stage 2 breast cancer and reassured Brenda this was the best type of cancer to have.

“In stage 2 breast cancer, cells that are cancerous have not spread beyond the breast or lymph nodes, allowing treatment to be more effective,” Dr. Sen Gupta said.

As part of her treatment, Brenda would need surgery and chose to have a double mastectomy. In November, Dr. Sen Gupta successfully performed the procedure.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Brenda’s husband was not able to accompany her, but she noted the many angels surrounding her as she waited for her surgery.

“The nurses and technicians came in to chat with me as I waited, and I prayed to God knowing that He will guide the hands of my surgeons and the eyes and the hearts of the people working on me,” Brenda said. “I prayed Psalm 23 – ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want’ – and by the time Dr. Sen Gupta walked in, I had found great peace.”

A few weeks after surgery, Brenda met with Shannon O’Connor, MD, a medical oncologist with Maryland Oncology Hematology at the Aquilino Cancer Center. Dr. O’Connor recommended a MammaPrint, a genomic test that analyzes a piece of the tumor to determine the likelihood of early-stage breast cancer recurring throughout the body. It also helps determine if further treatment like chemotherapy is needed. Brenda’s results showed a probability of high recurrence and favored chemotherapy.

Journeying with Faith

Brenda says the love and support she had through treatment reminds her how blessed she is. Her husband tended to Brenda, his part-time business and her elderly father as she had treatment. The day before her first chemo treatment, Brenda’s daughter organized a drive-by parade with family, friends and – most special to her – former and current poms squad members that she coaches with her daughter at Gaithersburg High School.

As Brenda sat for her first infusion treatment, she prayed. She asked God and the Holy Spirit to guide the medication to kill the cancer so she could do God’s work through this experience. She says she felt God’s grace come upon her and He gave her the thought, “I will be the victor, not the victim.”

Soon after treatment, Brenda started to become anxious about recurrence. She discussed her concerns with Dr. Sen Gupta, who made the introduction to Lindsey Wise, oncology social worker at the Aquilino Cancer Center. Now, a year after treatment, Brenda meets with Lindsey to find purpose and understanding in her diagnosis.

Community of Care

Lindsey is not the only support at the Aquilino Cancer Center. As part of a shift toward providing whole-person cancer care, free resources are available to help with the nutritional, emotional, spiritual and financial needs of patients and their families. Lindsey shared that “ensuring everyone, including family members, has access to these resources is part of what makes the Aquilino Cancer Center special.”

Brenda’s goal is to share God’s message of her experience, encourage women to get screened and support other women going through a similar situation.

Brenda explained, “Fighting breast cancer was something God and I did together. I never wondered ‘Why me?’ The statistics show 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, so my thought was always, ‘Why not me?’”

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