8 breast biopsy questions, answered

Getting a breast biopsy? You might be wondering what it is and how it works. A breast biopsy is a diagnostic procedure in which a doctor removes a small amount of breast tissue to examine under a microscope. If the tissue sample shows cancer, the physician can have it analyzed further to provide the most accurate diagnosis — a critical first step in getting patients the best treatment possible for their particular type of breast cancer. A biopsy may be ordered when a mammogram or other breast imaging (such as an ultrasound) reveals an abnormality or you feel a lump in your breast, or when a physician notices something suspicious (such as dimpling or a change in skin texture) during a clinical exam. We spoke with Marion Scoggins, M.D., to learn more. Here’s what she had to say. What are the types of breast biopsies, and how are they different? There are two basic types of breast biopsy: surgical and needle. A breast biopsy done surgically through an incision in the skin is called a surgical breast biopsy. A breast biopsy done by inserting a needle through the skin is called a breast needle biopsy. There are two main types of breast needle biopsy:  fine needle aspiration, which uses a thin, hollow needle attached to a syringe, and core needle biopsy, which uses a larger needle that removes a small, tube-shaped piece of tissue with a spring-loaded device or a vacuum-assisted device. Because it’s important to pinpoint areas of concern and pull tissue from those exact spots, doctors typically use an ultrasound — or a mammogram or MRI, in some...

Acinic cell carcinoma survivor grateful for clinical trial

Keith Taggart noticed a lump the size of a pea in his left cheek in October 2014. He was also experiencing fatigue, weight loss, nausea and incontinence. His primary care physician wasn’t too concerned about the lump but referred him to an oral surgeon to have it removed and biopsied. Keith was diagnosed with acinic cell carcinoma of the salivary gland 10 days later. But he wasn’t especially worried. “I believed that any future tumors could be easily treated by extraction with local anesthesia, the same way they’d removed the lump for the biopsy,” Keith recalls. An oncologist near his home in  Oklahoma City scheduled him for oral surgery and seven weeks of radiation therapy. Coming to MD Anderson for acinic cell carcinoma treatment After his tumors came back four separate times,  Keith sought a second opinion at MD Anderson in January 2016.  “MD Anderson has an impeccable reputation for cancer treatment,” Keith says of his decision to travel here. “It’s light years ahead of everything in my state in terms of treatment and success rate.” Facing metastatic acinic cell carcinoma At MD Anderson, Keith met with head and neck surgeon Neil Gross, M.D., who was concerned with how quickly the cancer seemed to be spreading. Keith underwent a full-body  CT scan, which showed the cancer had metastasized to his lungs, liver, kidneys and lymphatic system. “It had grown out of control, and we needed to go in a different direction,” Keith says. He met with head and neck medical oncologist Renata Ferrarotto, M.D., who told him that chemotherapy might prolong his life for a little while.  “That was...

Helping my husband through brain tumor surgery

My husband, Richard, likes to say, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!” That’s what he said to me when I first noticed the small bump on the right side of his head while we were dating. I’m a physical therapist and have dealt with patients with musculoskeletal, orthopedic and neurological issues, so I knew to ask him about headaches and vision changes. But he didn’t have any other symptoms at that time. Brain tumor symptoms increase I noticed some little changes around Christmas 2016. The bump had grown bigger, he had some weakness on his left side, his smile had changed and he started to get headaches with dizziness. By then, we were engaged and busy preparing for our wedding. We got married on March 11, 2017, in Magnolia, Texas. Richard had short-term memory loss at that point and can barely remember the events of our wedding. But he knew he married me! Richard saw his primary care physician the week after our wedding and was immediately referred to a neurologist. By then, Richard had started vomiting and had terrible headaches. I was at work when Richard called and told me the neurologist had confirmed what I’d already begun to fear: Richard had a brain tumor. I cried in my car and prayed, “We just got married and have so many plans together; please don’t take him away from me now.” Brain tumor surgery at MD Anderson Richard’s neurologist recommended we go to MD Anderson and see Dr. Sherise Ferguson, a neurosurgeon in the Brain and Spine Center. Soon after, Dr. Ferguson performed a craniotomy to remove Richard’s...

Stage IV melanoma survivor: Immunotherapy clinical trial gave me my life back

I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma in December 2014, a year after I had a cancerous mole removed from my left calf. I thought I was done with it. Then I felt a lump in my groin while shaving my legs when I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second child. A lymph node biopsy revealed the melanoma was back, but it appeared to be confined to that one area. Not wanting to hurt the baby, I deferred any additional scans or treatment until after I delivered. A PET scan taken the day my son was born showed the cancer was also in my liver, spine and other places. When I heard the results, my daughter was two and my newborn was only a week old. I went to one of the larger hospital systems for treatment, but the chemotherapy they recommended didn’t work. All of my tumors were still growing. The doctors there told me to enjoy what time I had left. But having such a young family, I couldn’t accept that prognosis. Instead, I found a clinical trial at MD Anderson that combined targeted therapy and immunotherapy. It saved my life. Why I chose a clinical trial for my melanoma treatment I knew I was in the right place at MD Anderson when I first met with my oncologist, Dr. Isabella Glitza. She started my appointment by simply listening. Then, she sketched out a list of all my options and explained each one, as well as its risks and benefits. My husband and I picked the one we thought was best: a clinical trial yielding tremendous...

5 things I didn’t expect from life after cancer

Cancer survivorship is not exactly what I thought it would be. It has brought both unexpected hardship and indescribable joy to my life. But the more I speak with others who have faced cancer, the more I see repeated patterns in our lives about making the transition between active cancer treatment and post-treatment life. Here are five things I didn’t expect from my first year-and-a-half of being cancer-free. 1. Cancer has long-term side effects. I don’t know why I thought I could just “go back to normal” after sarcoma treatment. Because for the last year and a half, I have practically lived in my doctors’ offices, seeking ways to manage my chronic back pain. Some days, I literally sit down and cry because it hurts so much. Others, I am reminded of what a gift it is just to be alive. But always, my own experience helps me stay empathetic to what other people are going through. 2. It’s a misconception that everything is OK now. When you move from active treatment to post-treatment, an invisible shift happens. In the eyes of others, cancer-free = all good. The expectation is that since you don’t have cancer anymore, everything about your physical, mental and emotional health must be OK, too. Yet your mind and heart are still processing the experience, and your body is still healing. Before my own cancer diagnosis, I was as guilty of thinking this way as anyone. I heard “cancer-free” in relation to my friends and family members and automatically breathed a sigh of relief. Back then, I didn’t know any better. But I also didn’t...