10-year survivor: My triple-negative breast cancer care led me to work at MD Anderson

I wasn’t working at MD Anderson yet when I learned that I had triple-negative breast cancer in July 2009. But after hearing about two family members’ positive experiences there and then becoming a patient myself, I really, really wanted to.

The thing that drew me in most was MD Anderson’s Core Values: Caring, Integrity and Discovery. I saw them listed everywhere at MD Anderson, particularly in the elevators. They explained the importance of treating everyone with courtesy, kindness and respect. And that’s exactly what I got as a patient in MD Anderson’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center.

Why I came to MD Anderson

It quickly became clear to me what sets MD Anderson apart.

The first oncologist I’d seen had really scared me. She told me that if my cancer was at stage I or II, it was treatable; if it was at stage III, it might be treatable; and if it was already at stage IV, the best she could do was “keep me comfortable.”

But I didn’t want to be kept comfortable. And I wasn’t going to just sit back and wait to die. Based on what I knew about MD Anderson from my family, that was, without a doubt, where I would go. My life depended on it.

My cousin referred me to her radiation oncologist, Dr. Gregory Chronowski. He works at MD Anderson West Houston, which was at a different location at the time. I called for an appointment, and a last-minute cancellation allowed me to see him the very next day. He did such a thorough exam that I felt totally confident in my decision to be treated at MD Anderson. I knew I was in good hands.

My triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis

Since Dr. Chronowski focuses on radiation therapy, he referred me to some of his colleagues at MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center campus to lay out my treatment plan. There, I met with medical oncologist Dr. Daniel Booser, surgical oncologist Dr. Kelly Hunt and plastic surgeon Dr. Donald Baumann.

After reviewing my records and running more tests, they confirmed my breast cancer diagnosis. Dr. Booser said it was stage II and triple-negative. That meant it lacked the three most common receptors doctors usually target to treat breast cancer. He suggested chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation therapy. I’d start with a chemotherapy drug called paclitaxel (Taxol) for 12 weeks, then move on to stronger drugs if needed.

My triple-negative breast cancer treatment

After a few weeks, it became clear that the chemotherapy wasn’t working. The lump in my right breast was getting bigger. I stopped taking Taxol and began getting an infusion every three weeks of a chemotherapy combination called “FAC,” which stands for flouraurasil, doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide.

Happily, my cancer responded well to those drugs. Just three weeks after my first dose, the tumor had shrunk by 50%. After the second dose, Dr. Booser could hardly measure it. After the sixth dose, I had surgery.

I was so thankful to find that I did not need a full mastectomy. Instead, Dr. Hunt performed a segmental mastectomy, removing a golf-ball-sized portion of my breast on Jan. 15, 2010. Dr. Baumann rebuilt the area with muscle and tissue taken from behind one of my shoulder blades. He made the incisions blend in so beautifully that I can still wear a swimsuit and not see the scars.

I began radiation therapy about two months later at MD Anderson West Houston, since it’s close to my home. And I’ve shown no evidence of disease since then.

Paying it forward to help other cancer patients

Everything about my treatment at MD Anderson felt well-organized and smoothly done. And I just loved the way everyone was focused on delivering care with courtesy and kindness. That’s what made me so eager to work there.

I tried to get a job there for years after that, but no dental hygienist positions were available. When one finally opened up in late 2017, I jumped at the chance to join the team.

Much to my delight, I was hired. Now, I get to provide the same courtesy and kindness that initially attracted me to MD Anderson to other patients. As a 10-year breast cancer survivor, I also give them hope. So this has been a real gift — to me and to them.

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