After losing both parents to cancer at an early age, Sarah decided to undergo testing for the cancer-causing BRCA gene. Not only was she BRCA positive, further testing showed she already had Stage 2 breast cancer at age 32.
Most women in their 30s aren’t thinking about breast cancer. After all, most doctors don’t recommend yearly mammograms until age 40, so other than the occasional self-breast exam or assessment during a yearly gynecologist visit, most young women don’t give it much thought. Age is on their side. But, there are young women like Sarah, 36, from Easton, who are exceptions to the rule because of unfortunate and uncontrollable genetic predispositions.
A year after Sarah’s father died of complications from lung cancer, her family suffered another devastating blow. Within one week of each other, her mother and her aunt were both diagnosed with cancer - her mom, with advanced pancreatic cancer and her aunt, with early stage breast cancer.
Her mom’s cancer was so advanced that doctors recommended she spend time with family and get her affairs in order, only giving her about six weeks to live. So Sarah spent as much time with her mom as possible, going through old photo albums, retelling childhood stories, sadly preparing for the end. She learned a lot about her mom and her family as the cancer took hold of her mother, and she also learned that she wanted to do everything possible to avoid a similar fate.
Her mom died at the age of 52, about six months after her diagnosis. At the urging of her mother’s oncologist, Sarah decided to undergo genetic testing. Even though she was reluctant and felt emboldened because of her young age (she was only 32), she knew that with such a strong family history of cancer, the likelihood of carrying the hereditary mutation could be very high. Finding out if she was predisposed would help Sarah do something her parents couldn’t: get ahead of cancer. Ever-present in her thought process was the knowledge that if her mom had the chance to “get ahead” of her cancer, she would have taken that chance in a heartbeat.
Sarah proceeded with the test and a few days later, her gynecologist called with results; she did indeed test positive for the BRCA gene. He urged her to schedule a mammogram. Nervous, she arranged the test with St. Luke’s Regional Breast Center. “The staff was amazing,” says Sarah. “Each time a test result required additional testing, they scheduled it right away, rather than making me wait or reschedule.” By the end of the day, Sarah had results from a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy - all pointing to one conclusion - she had Stage II breast cancer. In fact, she had two masses, positioned to spread, but because it was caught early, it didn’t. Had Sarah waiting until her 40s to have her first mammogram or if she had waited to feel a lump, it may have been too late.
Her gynecologist recommended she meet with surgical oncologist Tricia Kelly, MD to discuss her options. As soon as Sarah met Dr. Kelly, she felt comforted and confident that she would be getting the best possible care. She very much appreciated Dr. Kelly’s holistic healing approach. “All patients deserve quality, compassionate care and I strive to treat the whole person, not just the underlying cancer,” says Dr. Kelly. “Holistic means not only treating the cancer through conventional methods (surgery, radiation, chemotherapy) but advising the patient on diet, exercise, ways to reduce stress and incorporating palliative care (pain management) when needed.”
Sarah’s bilateral mastectomy, followed by reconstruction, was a success and no further treatment was needed at the time. However, about two years later, while sitting at her desk, she happened to feel a lump. Petrified, she called Dr. Kelly’s office and rather than ask for an appointment, she sharply told them that she was coming in the next morning. “The staff at Dr. Kelly’s office was great,” remembers Sarah. “They knew how scared I was and they didn’t say a word about how demanding I was on the phone - they just wanted to be there for me.” The next day, Sarah’s fear was confirmed; her lump was cancer.
“This time, Sarah’s cancer turned out to be a different pathology, so it’s not considered a ‘recurrence’ but a separate cancer,” explains Dr. Kelly. “Drastic measures were needed this time, and, even though she was very young, I recommended that she have an oophorectomy, or the removal of both ovaries, because this kind of cancer was hormone dependent. She would also need a lumpectomy, followed by an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation regimen.”
Before and after her surgery, Sarah had a “dream team” of St. Luke’s Cancer Center doctors caring for her, whom she credits with saving her life on more than one occasion. Dr. Kelly, Hikaru Nakajima, MD and Israel Zighelboim, MD, all worked together from a multidisciplinary approach to get her the best care possible and get her to a point where her only doctor visits consist of regular surveillance and testing to monitor for any signs of recurrence.
“I’ve always felt like caring for patients with cancer is different than other disciplines,” says Dr. Kelly. “I’m on a journey together with patients like Sarah. Understandably, they come in very scared, but my goal is that after we sit down, talk everything through and get to know each other, they feel comforted and hopeful that our team is going to take good care of them.”
Part of that journey that Dr. Kelly describes, is bonding with patients on causes they support. Sarah recalls that after her last surgery, she talked to Dr. Kelly about a movie that was premiering nationwide called, “Decoding Annie Parker” about a breast cancer patient and a doctor researching a genetic link to her particular cancer. Throughout the country, there were pre-screenings scheduled as fundraisers for cancer-awareness. “As soon as I told Dr. Kelly about it, she sprang into action and arranged a screening at SL Frank Banko Alehouse, even coordinating speakers and panelists for a Q&A after the movie and raising money for cancer charities,” recalls Sarah. “That’s what I love about Dr. Kelly, she gets involved with patients and causes and partners with them to make sure they are getting every possible resource and advantage - it’s one of the reasons I’m alive and well today.”