Sarcoma and breast cancer survivor gives hope to other patients

Kay Atten’s dreams revolved around her four children. In 2005, her two sons and two daughters were on the edge of adulthood, and she wanted nothing more than to see them graduate from college, develop careers and start their own families. But a desmoid tumor — a type of soft tissue sarcoma — threatened to stop her from ever realizing those dreams.

After a mysterious blue bump on her abdomen led to multiple surgeries and biopsies near her hometown of Arlington, Texas, doctors told Kay there was nothing more they could do for her.

Kay still didn’t have a definitive diagnosis. “But MD Anderson had other plans,” she says. At the urging of her family, Kay sought a second opinion here. “That changed everything.”

Undergoing sarcoma surgery

During her first appointment in April 2005, she met with Kelly Hunt, M.D., a breast cancer and sarcoma surgeon.

“We clicked right away,” she says. “She made me feel like I was going to be OK.”

Hunt conducted two biopsies and diagnosed Kay with a desmoid tumor. The tumor was located in her left breast, and the tumor extended into the muscle surrounding her ribs. A complicated surgery involving teams from different specialties would be required to remove the tumor.

On June 8, 2005, Hunt performed surgery and removed the breast tumor. Then, Stephen Swisher, M.D., a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon, removed a portion of Kay’s chest wall, including her sternum and parts of four ribs. Afterwards, a team of plastic surgeons performed a reconstruction surgery.

The surgery successfully removed the cancer, but Kay’s recovery wasn’t easy. She experienced a great deal of pain and had to have a nurse come to her house daily once she was released from the hospital. But over time she regained her strength.

Now, she hardly notices the missing ribs. “Although it surprised my chiropractor at first,” she says with a laugh.

A second cancer diagnosis: breast cancer

Kay returned to MD Anderson every year for follow-up appointments. For years, her scans remained clear. But a June 2017 mammogram showed an abnormality in her left breast. An ultrasound revealed a small mass – less than 1 centimeter in size.   

To locate the mass and determine if it was cancer, a breast imaging specialist performed an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy.

The biopsy revealed that Kay had invasive lobular carcinoma, a type of breast cancer.

“That was the start of a very hard year,” Kay says.

Kay’s breast cancer treatment

First, Kay underwent surgery. Hunt performed a partial mastectomy to remove the cancer and a sentinel lymph node dissection to ensure that the cancer hadn’t spread. Hunt successfully removed all of the cancer in the breast, and Kay’s margins were clear. The sentinel node dissection showed four lymph nodes all negative for cancer. She was cancer-free.

After this surgery, Kay’s recovery was a little easier. She experienced less pain and was able to get back to her normal routine more quickly because the surgery wasn’t as invasive.

Then, she began radiation therapy.

Once a week, Kay visited radiation oncologist Eric Strom, M.D., and his team to assure him that her daily radiation treatments were going smoothly. But not long after she started radiation, her mother passed away. During this difficult time, her visits with Strom and his team became a great comfort to her.

“I loved his office. They’re just wonderful people there,” she says. “I felt like I was going to be OK.”

A calling to support other cancer patients

Once radiation was behind her, Kay started focusing on her life without cancer. She saw her children graduate from high school, celebrated their weddings and welcomed grandchildren. She was grateful to be there for it all, but a part of her began to wonder: Why me? Why did I beat cancer not once, but twice?

Then, one day in the waiting room before a follow-up appointment at MD Anderson, Kay spotted another patient who looked nervous. She struck up a conversation, and the two discussed their experiences. After the appointment, Kay headed to her car in the garage, when a man approached her. The other patient was his wife, and she was nervous about her scans.

“You don’t know how much you eased my wife’s mind,” he told her.

It was then that Kay realized a new mission outside her family: to help other patients. Whenever possible, she tries to talk with other cancer patients to offer them support and, most of all, hope.

“Now I tell other patients: Never give up hope,” she says. “There’s always fight left in you.”          

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