Breast Cancer Survivor
- Diagnosed at age 43 with DCIS in 2000
- Later revealed invasive cancer
- Treated with mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation
Gwen Brown was 43 years old in 2000 when she had her annual mammogram, something she had started doing when she was 40. With no family history of cancer, she was surprised to find out she had DCIS – ductal carcinoma in situ.
Ductal carcinoma in situ is a condition in which abnormal cells are confined to the milk ducts in the breast. This is the most common type of noninvasive breast cancer. DCIS is considered early-stage cancer. Many women diagnosed at this early stage can be cured by removing the tissue that contains the tumor. Left untreated, DCIS can become invasive. DCIS typically has no physical signs or symptoms. It is usually detected by a screening mammogram.
“It’s the best kind of cancer you can have, if you’re going to have it,” Gwen was told by her doctor. “But it got worse as I went along.”
The area involved was too large to make a lumpectomy an option, so Gwen was scheduled for a mastectomy. As a precaution, and usual procedure, her surgeon decided to remove a few lymph nodes for examination. Gwen and her doctor were very surprised to find that three out of five lymph nodes removed had cancer. A week later additional lymph nodes were removed and they were “clean.”
Due to Gwen’s young age and the invasive nature of the cancer, she and her doctors decided that aggressive treatment was needed. Gwen would have three months of chemotherapy followed by an additional three months of chemotherapy with radiation.
“My doctor was surprised,” Gwen says. “They expected nothing, but that tiny bit of invasive cancer was important because I was young.”
Working as a paralegal at the time with two children in high school—with one about to go to college, Gwen says the family was OK when they found out she had DCIS. “But as things went on, and we learned it was more, it became harder for them to deal with,” she says. Gwen took her kids to counseling, which helped.
Gwen received treatment from October 2000 to May 2001. “That was when I realized how much people really loved me,” she says. “Having good friends who checked in and supported me was so helpful. I was concerned about not being able to wash my hair after surgery. My friend came over dressed in a leopard outfit as Bubbles the Beautician complete with a white smock to wash my hair!”
Gwen participated in an exercise-during-chemotherapy study at the University of Washington, which helped, too, she says. “I’m good at tasks. My sister helped arrange for a personal trainer and I felt not-too-bad for most of the time.” Her husband even took her cross-country skiing during treatment.
For Gwen, radiation therapy was hard. It was easy in the sense that driving to SCCA every day was close to home, but the treatment side effects were difficult.
Coworkers donated their sick time to help her out, “but going to work kept things normal for me,” she says. “It kept me from thinking about things and helped me get through it.”
After her treatment was completed and Gwen was considered cancer free, she got angry, and scared, and would have outbursts at her family. “I never joined a support group,” she says. The people she saw at the one she went to were older, or sicker, and not like her. She eventually got herself a counselor, too.
Gwen has been cancer free for over 11 years. Since her diagnosis, a couple of her friends have had breast cancer. “More are finding it early, which is good,” she says.
“Some people say good things come out of having cancer,” Gwen says. “For us, an estranged sister came back into our lives, and then she died a year later. And we reconnected with a once lost family friend.”
Living a cancer-free life includes spending time sailing, skiing, and playing tennis, gardening, hiking, golfing, and walking her two dogs. She goes to the Women’s Center for annual check-ups. “I look forward to my annual exams to verify that all is good. SCCA is very thorough—they don’t leave anything to chance.”