Persistence leads to mom’s early-stage breast cancer diagnosis

Suzanne Moilanen has lived in six countries in the last 30 years. And
while she enjoyed living abroad, it also allowed her to get complacent
about her health.

“When you’re young and you live overseas, you don’t do well-woman
exams every year,” she says, “and you kind of worry only about your
kids’ health care needs.”

Then last summer, after she’d worked her way up to walking/running
eight miles every day, her progress started to diminish.

“I was running or walking this long distance, but then I’d take
three days to recover physically,” she says. “By October, I couldn’t
even finish three miles.”

Suzanne’s family doctor ordered a battery of tests, including a mammogram. While blood work revealed that low
potassium was causing her sudden weakness, a mammogram performed
through MD Anderson Cancer Center Breast
Care at Memorial Hermann also detected an abnormality in her right
breast. Jay R. Parikh, M.D., scheduled a biopsy.

A breast cancer diagnosis

The biopsy indicated it was benign tissue with a radial scar, but
Parikh insisted that she get it checked out by a surgeon. “The surgeon
wasn’t too concerned it was cancer, but he also agreed it needed to
come out,” she says.

So on February 27, Suzanne underwent a partial mastectomy. Three
days later, she learned from pathology results that she had ductal
carcinoma in situ (DCIS) — the earliest stage of breast cancer.

“I’d always known it was a possibility based on my research, but it
took me a while to digest the news since it happened after the
surgery,” she says.

Clinical trial shortens breast cancer treatment

When Suzanne didn’t connect with the first oncologist she saw, she
took a colleague’s advice and scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in The
, which is near her office.

“It was a night and day experience,” she says. “I never felt rushed.
Everyone wanted to make sure they heard me. They looked me in the eye
and talked to me like I mattered.”

Because the pathology report showed that the surgeon had removed all
of the cancerous cells, Craig Kovitz, M.D., and Pamela Schlembach, M.D., decided that Suzanne
needed only radiation therapy. She opted to join the Phase
II OPAL clinical trial examining the side effects of a
shorter but intensified radiation course for women with DCIS.

“I would love to be one of the people who brought a two-week
radiation session to other women so they don’t have to go through four
weeks if it’s not necessary,” she says of her decision to participate
in the clinical trial.

Finding comfort in 80s music

During her first treatment, Suzanne was so nervous that she asked
one of the technicians to swap the music playing overhead to something
that soothed her – 80s rock.

“From then on, they had 80s rock ready for me whenever I came in,”
she says. “It made all the difference in the world that they took my
personal needs into account. I was no longer anxious, and it made it
more fun.”

Suzanne’s first few sessions of radiation therapy were tolerable,
then fatigue hit her hard.

“My last week, I was pulling over on the side of the road and
sleeping before I got home because I was that tired,” she says.

She also experienced some redness on her skin and irritation on her
breast surgery scar, but otherwise had no major complications.

“Just something to get through”

Suzanne finished her last treatment in April and now returns to
MD Anderson in The Woodlands every three
months for follow-up visits. She feels blessed to have participated in
the clinical trial, which allowed her to resume her everyday life,
happily, with family.

Suzanne also counts herself lucky that Parikh was proactive and
encouraged her to further investigate her biopsy results. She knows
that’s not always the case, which is why she tells others: “Educate
yourself and be an advocate for your own health.”

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