Breast Cancer Survivor
Lynnette Stone was dreaming about Sierra Leone. Having raised and home-schooled three daughters and a son, now grown, she was ready at 50 for a new experience. A three-week humanitarian trip to an orphanage in western Africa seemed like just the ticket. She made the plans, she raised the funds, and then everything changed.
While showering during a vacation on Kauai in September 2013, Lynnette noticed an unusual lump in her left breast.
Beginning a Journey of a Different Kind
Back at home in Bothell, Washington, Lynnette mentioned the lump to a friend. “Let’s go get ‘buddy grams’!” said the woman, who was overdue for a screening mammogram. In October, the two set off together to a medical center in Everett.
“They knew something was wrong right away,” said Lynnette. Almost before she could grasp what was happening, she was thrust into treatment for stage IB invasive ductal carcinoma, or infiltrating ductal carcinoma, that had spread to a sentinel lymph node. Her cancer was grade 3, highly aggressive. It was also weakly positive for estrogen receptors, suggesting it would respond to hormonal therapies, and it made too much of the protein HER2/neu, a predictor of more aggressive disease.
The Africa trip was off. Over the next several weeks, Lynnette was routed through a series of cancer-related waypoints: a meeting with a surgeon, a lumpectomy/partial mastectomy, and finally an appointment with a medical oncologist, who recommended aggressive chemotherapy.
By then, Lynnette realized she wanted to get her bearings before making any more treatment decisions. Was such aggressive chemo truly necessary? And was this really the right treatment center for her? So she sought a second opinion at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) Medical Oncology on the campus of UWMC-Northwest. Her two youngest children had been born at UWMC-Northwest, and she’d had a screening mammogram at the hospital’s breast center in the past.
A Second Opinion Close to Home
Lynnette’s appointment, with UW Medicine oncologist Edmond Ardeshir Marzbani, MD, changed her plans yet again. “My husband and I left that meeting, looked at each other, and said, ‘This is where we’re supposed to be.’”
Dr. Marzbani reviewed Lynnette’s records, examined and talked with her, and concurred that the aggressive nature of her cancer called for equally aggressive treatment. The way he explained his recommendations not only assured Lynnette of his expertise but also left her feeling that the road ahead made sense.
“I was blown away at our first meeting. Eddie”—as she calls him—“articulated everything in a way we could understand, but also in a way that made you know he knew what he was talking about,” she recalled. “He’s a brilliant man and also very personable.”
The rest of the staff, from the receptionist to the nurses, made an impression, too. “You felt like you were welcomed into someone’s house, like they were really investing in you,” she said. “From the time you walked in, you felt it.
“I felt like a person, and I needed that. I was scared. I needed to feel like I was not just a number.”
Chemotherapy, Radiation, and More
On December 31, 2013, Lynnette received her first chemotherapy infusion, at SCCA Medical Oncology at UWMC-Northwest under Dr. Marzbani’s care. Over the next 15 months, she would have 29 more—initially with traditional chemotherapy drugs and then with the biological therapy trastuzumab (Herceptin). She also had radiation therapy, five days a week for six weeks, at SCCA Radiation Oncology at UWMC-Northwest Hospital and began hormone therapy.
Treatment was tough at times. Her long hair fell out, leaving her bald for nine months. Her husband, Don, and adult children, like many families facing cancer, sometimes struggled to accept what was happening or understand what support she needed. But they weathered the ups and downs, and a large network of friends pitched in to help.
“My grandchildren”—she has three—“were a motivating factor every day,” Lynnette said. “Sometimes I wanted to quit, but I saw those sweet little faces and thought, ‘I want to see them get married.’”
The Cancer Club
Lynnette was also buoyed by Dr. Marzbani and his team’s approach to her care. Though they were the same age, Tracy, an oncology nurse who administered Lynnette’s infusions, became known as Lynnette’s “mama bear,” for her lovingly protective attitude.
“Nobody really wants to be in the ‘cancer club,’” but, Lynnette said with a laugh, “it’s been as good an experience as any horrible experience can be.”
An extrovert, Lynnette also coped by reaching out to other patients in the waiting area before their appointments.
“You sit in this room and everybody’s looking at each other and everybody’s got this look on their face,” she said, the look of someone feeling uncertain about the future. “You know we’re all thinking the same thing: ‘What’s next?’”
So Lynnette would ask, “How’s your day going?” or “What’s your story, if you want to share?” Conversations would unfold, and connections would form. She feels blessed to be able to tell her own story and sees it as a way of walking alongside other cancer survivors who might be going through a difficult time or feeling alone.
She and a designer friend also created and gave out no-slip, easy-to-tie scarves for bald patients who, like Lynnette, didn’t care for wigs. The amount of love she’s been able to give and receive throughout treatment, including with fellow patients, has been gratifying, she said. “I like to love on people.”
Lynnette’s last chemotherapy treatment was in mid-March 2015. The next day she had breast reconstruction surgery at UWMC-Northwest. Her hormone therapy—with toremifene (Fareston)—is ongoing. And Dr. Marzbani is looking for clinical studies testing therapies that might help reduce the chances that Lynnette’s cancer will recur.
Asked whether she’d be willing to enroll in a study if he found a promising opportunity, Lynnette responded, “Totally. I think that’s where the progress is really made. Anything I can do to reduce my risk. Part of the allure of being with Eddie is not just that he’s a wonderful doctor but that he’s part of a teaching and research institution.”
‘Where Do I Go from Here?’
Years ago, Lynnette wrote in her Bible, “Here I am Lord, send me.” The inscription came back to her when she had to cancel her trip to Sierra Leone to enter cancer treatment. “It was as if I heard God telling me, ‘This is the trip I have planned for you. This is where I am taking you,’” she said. The thought gave her peace, strength, and endurance, and she replied, “Wherever You’re going to take me with this, I’m going to go.”
For the next year-and-a-half cancer was her full-time job. Now? “I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve been redefined. Many of the things that were important to me before cancer are not that important anymore. I’m not sure yet what the ‘new normal’ will be. But I know that God doesn’t waste anything. There is purpose. This journey I’m on, this is part of who I’m going to become. Now I’m asking, ‘Where do I go from here? And how do I advocate for others?’”
One thing she knows is that dealing with cancer has heightened her appreciation for her family and friends. “They were always important to me,” she said. “But it’s a different color now. It’s like they don’t blend, they’re brilliant.”