Breast Cancer Survivor
Diagnosed with stage I estrogen-receptor positive, HER2-positive, BRCA2-positive cancer in June 2010 at age 35
- Treated with double mastectomy, paclitaxel, and trastuzumab at SCCA and UW Medical Center
- Treated with prophylactic oophorectomy at UW Medical Center
Rebecca Seago-Coyle became a long-distance runner in 2009 at the age of 34. “I planned to walk and run alternate miles my first marathon, which was in Portland,” she said, “but I ended up running the whole thing. I loved it!” She ran a half-marathon a few months later and decided that 35 was going to be her year. “I wanted to be known for doing something,” Rebecca said, “and I decided to run or ride my bicycle in an event every month of 2010.”
At the end of 2009, Rebecca ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Las Vegas. She ran the same race in Phoenix in January 2010. In Jacksonville, Fla., for work in February, she decided to run in a breast cancer awareness race. “I met a survivor who was running the event and had run every day through her treatment. I was so impressed,” Rebecca said.
It was then that Rebecca recalled that her aunt and grandmother had both died of breast cancer at age 34. Her cousin had been diagnosed at age 30. Rebecca also realized that the lump she’d found in her own breast the previous year had grown. Her husband, Alan, encouraged her to see a doctor about it.
Biopsy Leads to Diagnosis
In April, Rebecca rode the Daffodil Classic, a 60-mile bicycle ride in Orting, Wash. In May, she ran Olympia’s Capitol City half-marathon and then biked a portion of the Mt. Blast ride up and down Mount St. Helens. Later that month she got her lump checked out by a doctor and had an ultrasound. “The [ultrasound technician] said that it wasn’t cancer, and that I didn’t need a mammogram,” Rebecca said. “But I asked to have a mammogram anyway.”
The mammogram revealed some microcalcifications, which her doctor said needed to be biopsied. Assuming her lump was just a cyst, Rebecca saw a surgeon; she wanted to have the lump removed. “On June 4, at 1:03 p.m., my life changed forever,” Rebecca said, referring to the day and exact time she learned from her doctor that she had breast cancer.
Rebecca’s lump turned out to be stage I estrogen-receptor (ER) positive, HER2-positive, BRCA2-positive cancer. “I had a pretty rough weekend after that,” Rebecca said. “All the friends I talked to said Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) was the best place to go. But Monday, I saw a local surgeon, and he said he could see me on Friday and do a double mastectomy—[to reduce my increased risk of future breast cancer] because of my family history—followed by Adriamycin and then, after everything else was done, plastic surgery. But I decided to go to SCCA to get a second opinion, and within the first 15 minutes I knew I was in the right place.”
Treatment for Breast Cancer Between Events
“I am a project manager,” Rebecca said. Her cancer, like any other project, got a name: Project Teton. “Teton means breast in French,” she laughed. “And my subject matter experts (SMEs) were my oncologists at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. This was my way of taking control. It was my cancer. It was my project.” Still on course to participate in events every month and goal driven by nature, Rebecca didn’t want to veer from her plan just because she had cancer. Her doctor at SCCA, Julie R. Gralow, MD, professor of medical oncology at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine as well as director of breast medical oncology at SCCA, happened to be a runner and a staunch supporter of exercise before, during, and after cancer treatment. “Dr. Gralow was even at that Florida race where I’d met that survivor,” Rebecca said.
Rebecca completed two events in June and was scheduled for a double mastectomy in July under the care of David R. Byrd, MD, professor of surgery at the UW School of Medicine and director of surgery at SCCA. The Thursday before her surgery, Rebecca and her husband were out for a bike ride when they ran into a group of women all dressed in pink. “They were training for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day [walk] that year,” Rebecca said. She approached the women and told them of her diagnosis and impending surgery. “They embraced me,” Rebecca said. “And it really made a difference. I no longer felt alone. I couldn’t believe that complete strangers were willing to support me in this fight that lay ahead.”
In August, Rebecca recovered from surgery and began a 12-week course of treatment with paclitaxel (Taxol) and 12 months of trastuzumab (Herceptin). “I omitted Adriamycin because of the biology and stage of her cancer,” said Dr. Gralow. “We knew she’d get the most benefit from the HER2- and ER-targeted therapies.”
Rebecca walked 60 miles in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day event in September, two weeks after starting chemotherapy. “At the 3-Day, I felt like I had gained 2,000 new friends, and I was far from being alone. They asked me to raise the Survivor Flag! I was more worried about my hair falling out than walking the 60 miles,” Rebecca said. “I knew I could do the walk; I just didn’t want my hair to fall out.” Then she ran the Portland Marathon in October, a half-marathon in November, and another in December, completing 13 events for the year.
Dealing with Hereditary Cancer
Because Rebecca’s cancer was BRCA2 positive, she was at high risk for ovarian cancer. Just as having a double mastectomy reduces the likelihood of future breast cancers, removing the ovaries (oophorectomy) removes the chance of ovarian cancer.
“My husband’s sister had died of ovarian cancer at age 38,” Rebecca said. “That was hard on his family. I wanted to eliminate that risk.”
On December 23, 2010, Rebecca had her oophorectomy with Elizabeth M. Swisher, MD, professor of gynecologic oncology at the UW School of Medicine and UW director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program, and breast reconstruction surgery with Peter Neligan, MD, professor of surgery and director of the Center for Reconstructive Surgery at UW Medical Center. Rebecca dubbed Dr. Neligan her “user design specialist.” “I had to laugh at myself,” Rebecca said. “I learned that along the way.”
A Future After Breast Cancer
Rebecca took time off from athletics in 2011 to rest. “I had been so scared,” she said. “But I wanted to make a difference.” She began volunteering for the Young Survival Coalition and Susan G. Komen, including the Susan G. Komen Advocates in Science Program, even flying to Washington, D.C., to give a poster presentation (a visual, location-based view of breast cancer in Washington state) to an audience of 20,000.
Now she also mentors women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. “I try to help other women go through this,” she said. “I used to be an introvert,” she laughed. “But not anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be as scared as I was the day I received that diagnosis.”
Running helped Rebecca get through the challenges of treatment, and now it helps her through the hot flashes associated with early menopause due to her oophorectomy. It’s how she commutes home after work each day. In October 2012, Rebecca bought a $10 raffle ticket at the Lunch for a Cure-Tacoma and won a Mini Cooper. “I ask survivors to sign the car whenever I meet one,” she said. Despite having a new car, Rebecca will never stop running. “I’m just trying to stay healthy,” she said.