Breast Cancer Survivor
Cathy Lowen has fibrocystic breasts, so she was used to the occasional lump that would show up. But in 2010, one particular lump got bigger pretty quickly. After a little while it also began to hurt.
“It was time for my annual mammogram,” Cathy says, who usually went to see Kathleen Errico, PhD, a nurse practitioner with SCCA’s Breast Health Clinic since 2001, who specializes in the evaluation of benign breast problems, breast cancer screening and diagnosis, surveillance for breast cancer survivors and high-risk patients. “She and I both assumed it was a water-filled cyst like usual.”
Cathy had a mammogram. Then she had an ultrasound. “I saw it on the screen and I started to get upset,” she says. “I was shocked and I was glad that my husband was there with me.”
Cathy recalls feeling like her head was in the clouds that day. After the ultrasound she had four biopsies. “I floated out of there and just cried,” Cathy recalls.
Her mother had cancer twice. Both times, it was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) for which she received a mastectomy after the second diagnosis. Her sister hadn’t had cancer, but a distant cousin had had a breast cancer, too.
A couple of days later, Cathy learned that she, at age 50, had confined invasive ductal carcinoma, stage I, and was asked to come back to SCCA for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and then she met with a team of physicians in the Breast Cancer Specialty Center.
“I met with Dr. Ben Anderson, surgical oncologist, Dr. Janice Kim, radiation oncologist, and Dr. Georgiana Ellis, medical oncologist,” Cathy says. “I figured I’d have to have a mastectomy but they didn’t say that. My biggest worry was the fear of chemotherapy – after and during – I was terrified.”
Dr. Anderson explained what the team wanted to do for my treatment. “They armed me with education and gave me a sense of calm,” Cathy says. “My mother lives in Miami, and they didn’t have this team effort when she had cancer. She had to cart her records from one doctor to another. SCCA was holding my hand! They said, ‘We will take care of you.’ It was an excellent feeling from wonderful people.”
Cathy had surgery to remove the tumor and margins. “They used a special procedure with needles to light up the lymph nodes,” Cathy says, a procedure known as sentinel lymph node mapping. In this procedure, the surgeon locates and removes the sentinel nodes—the first lymph nodes to which breast cancer is likely to have spread. During surgery, these nodes are checked for cancer. If the biopsy results are negative (cancer-free), no more surgery is necessary. If the results are positive, an axillary lymph node dissection might be required to remove most of the remaining lymph nodes.
“I woke up without any drains and was relieved,” Cathy says. “That meant there wasn’t any cancer in my lymph nodes. I was so happy! I went home to recover, thinking I’m out of the woods.”
Cathy followed up with Dr. Ellis then and was told she would not have to have chemotherapy, so she followed up next with Dr. Kim for daily radiation treatment for the next six and a half weeks.
“It all takes time to heal in between procedures,” Cathy says. “But overall I had a very easy time. I’d go to SCCA in the morning for radiation – what an extraordinary team. It was quick. I never had time to feel sad, worried, or scared. And the burn cream they gave me is miraculous!”
“Cathy is a success story,” says Dr. Kim. “By this, I mean that due to her getting her screening mammogram and seeking medical attention and being such a strong advocate for her health, she essentially has saved her life. She also is so good at following up with her doctors. She is doing very well and will live a very long and healthy life.”
For the next several years, Cathy will check back with Dr. Ellis every four months. Cathy took arimadex for breast cancer prevention, but had too much joint pain and other side effects, so she stopped that medication and began taking tamoxifen instead.
Cathy is now back to her active life. “Cancer absolutely changed my life,” she says. “It puts things in perspective. I’ve always tried to be the best person I can be, and now I just don’t sweat the small stuff or people, or silly little things.”
Cathy acknowledges she was lucky to catch her cancer early. “I’m very grateful. There are people who have more problems than I do… SCCA is full of a bunch of heroes. I’m in awe of that. They arm you with education and you’re protected… though after surgery I think I lost my mind… or some of my memory anyway.”