Why I traveled 1,600 miles for breast cancer treatment

Until January 2016, I’d never heard of MD Anderson. I had no idea that it was considered the top hospital for cancer care in this country and possibly the world.

But when the breast cancer I’d been treated for near my home in New York turned out to be stage IV rather than stage II, I started researching my options. At MD Anderson, I found the personalized breast cancer treatment I needed. Today, I have no evidence of disease. 

My breast cancer diagnosis

I was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year I turned 40. This was a surprise, as I had no family history of cancer, and I’d already had my first baseline mammogram, which was completely normal. But one evening in the spring of 2015, I felt a lump in my left breast.

A biopsy showed it was invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer. Based on the tumor’s size and location, it was only considered stage II. I started my treatment in New York by undergoing a double mastectomy.

Unfortunately, three sentinel lymph nodes that were removed during the surgery tested positive for cancer. A PET scan taken shortly afterward showed that the breast cancer had already spread to a small spot on my pelvis. That changed my diagnosis from stage II to stage IV — which is considered incurable.

In a matter of weeks, I’d gone from being an early-stage cancer patient to a cancer patient for life. It turned my world upside down.

How I found my way to MD Anderson

Since my cancer had only spread to one other place in my body, my local oncologists thought my prognosis might be better than average. They suggested I begin with hormone therapy, the standard of care for treating estrogen receptor-positive stage IV breast cancer. To reduce my estrogen levels further, I started taking a daily pill called tamoxifen and had my ovaries removed.

I also began conducting my own research to learn more about my disease. My local oncologists had described my cancer as “oligometastatic,” meaning I only had a few other tumors, as opposed to more widespread disease. This is a very small and distinct subgroup of patients, and I found numerous articles online suggesting that we could benefit from more aggressive treatment.

Then I came across an article about a clinical trial at MD Anderson under Dr. Eric Strom for oligometastatic breast cancer. Even though MD Anderson was 1,600 miles away, I called for an appointment.

Just what I wanted: a personalized treatment plan

My husband and I met with Dr. Strom in January 2016. His infectious laugh, warm demeanor and obvious expertise immediately made me feel safe.

He looked at my records, reviewed my test results and completed new scans and exams. Then, he suggested a more aggressive approach. The tamoxifen wasn’t working, he said, as the breast cancer had already spread to two of my vertebrae. He recommended chemotherapy and radiation therapy to hit the metastases with as much force as possible.

Though the clinical trial I’d originally found was no longer accepting new patients, my treatment would be very similar. I could get the chemotherapy near my home, and have my scans and radiation therapy done at MD Anderson.

My breast cancer treatment at MD Anderson

I followed Dr. Strom’s recommendations to the letter. I started ACT (Adriamycin/Cytoxan/Taxol) chemotherapy in New York and returned to Houston regularly for scans.

After I finished six months of chemotherapy, I spent nine weeks in Houston receiving daily radiation treatments to my left chest wall and surrounding lymph nodes, and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) to my pelvis and spine. IMRT is an approach that focuses multiple radiation beams of different intensities directly on the tumor, delivering the highest possible dose to the cancer while sparing the surrounding tissues.

Even though I went home to see them on the weekends, it was exhausting and very challenging to be away from my children, who were 8, 4 and 1 at the time. But I would go anywhere to get the best treatment. And I am happy to report that my scans have shown no evidence of disease since June 2016.

I cannot say enough about MD Anderson, Dr. Strom and his team. There is simply no place like MD Anderson, and I tell everyone about it.

Facing the future with hope and optimism

I am not naïve. I know that at any point, my cancer could wake up. But for now, the disease is still asleep, and no lesions are large enough to appear on a PET scan. So, I am continuing to move forward with my life.

Right now, I am taking three medications: a daily pill called letrozole (which keeps my estrogen levels low), another pill called afinitor (which slows or stops the growth of new tumor cells) and monthly shots of denosumab to prevent bone loss. I get regular scans every six months. 

Some days, it’s difficult to accept that I will be receiving cancer treatments for the rest of my life, as the side effects can be challenging. But every cancer is unique, and I’m still hopeful that I’ll be one of the outliers who lives a long time.

It’s been four years since my breast cancer diagnosis, and I am thrilled to be surpassing the median life expectancy of the “typical” metastatic breast cancer patient. I still have some dark days, but I now also have hope and optimism. And I credit that to Dr. Strom, his team and MD Anderson.

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