In the third trimester of her first pregnancy, Carol was scratching at the pregnancy rash covering her body when she felt a lump in her breast. At her biweekly checkup, she brought it to the attention of her El Camino Health obstetrician Dr. Maureen Khoo, who immediately ordered an ultrasound. A biopsy confirmed triple-positive breast cancer.
"I was so stunned and shocked," says Carol, who remembers the first part of her cancer journey as a crazy time. "They induced my baby at 39 weeks so we could start treatment. The day I checked out of the hospital after giving birth, I checked back in to finish my scans."
Carol was grateful that the El Camino Health scheduling staff took charge of the details, shepherding her along to each of her appointments. When it was time to talk about treatment options, she met with top oncologist Dr. Shane Dormady.
With So Much at Stake Carol Seeks a Second Opinion
Dr. Dormady designed a personalized plan of treatment for her, but before beginning Carol sought a second opinion outside the El Camino Health network. She needed more assurance that she wasn't going to be overtreated and left infertile. The second opinion concurred with Dr. Dormady's recommended treatment plan.
"I had spoken with a couple other oncologists even before meeting Dr. Dormady," shares Carol. "But I was really drawn to the level of care at El Camino Health. They deal with cancer every day, but instead of being jaded or callous, they are sincerely caring and personal."
Finding the Right Balance of Treatment
"Triple-positive" refers to breast tumors that are ER-, PR- and HER2-positive. It means the cancer cells grow in response to estrogen (ER), progesterone (PR) and a growth-promoting protein that's on the outside of all breast cells known as HER2. These cancers tend to grow and spread quickly but are very responsive to medical treatment. In Carol's case, the tumor was small (2.5 cm), but cancer had spread to a lymph node.
"Because of my age and cancer type — I was 29 in 2015 when this all began — Dr. Dormady and I opted for the whole shebang," says Carol. "Two weeks after I gave birth, we started with targeted chemotherapy." That included four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan followed by 12 rounds of Taxol and 12 months of Herceptin.
Dr. Shyamali Singhal performed the lumpectomy, which was followed by radiation treatment with Dr. Robert Sinha. "I am now on my last year of five years of hormone treatment with Arimidex to lower my estrogen levels," says Carol.
When asked if she built in any time for emotional and psychological therapy, she says, "Staying at home with a new healthy, happy baby. That was therapy." All told, Carol would end up taking a year and a half off from work to concentrate on recovery.
Faith in the El Camino Health Cancer Care Team
Through it all, Carol drew strength from knowing she had an entire team in her corner fighting her cancer. In fact, she says she can't begin to describe how much she has grown to love everyone at the El Camino Health Cancer Center.
"The whole team is amazing," she says. "Dr. Dormady and nurse practitioner Katie are the best! They put up with my questions and quirks with the best humor and love. They understood my desire to be treated but not overtreated."
"The nurses are like family. I have to give a shoutout to my nurse Hannah. We shared our lives together every week for a whole year. That was the biggest blessing ever. I still drop by with treats when I’m in the area as an excuse to say hi."
Cancer Alters Your Life and It Never Really Leaves You
For those beginning their cancer journey, Carol has two bits of advice. "Definitely don't put off getting anything suspicious checked." She doubts she would have found the cancer early if she weren't seeing Dr. Khoo regularly. "Lastly, know that cancer never leaves you. Post-cancer PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and anxiety is real, even after treatment ends, and that's OK."
Because El Camino Health knows that the emotional toll may continue long after cancer treatment ends, they've developed the Survivorship Program to support patients like Carol who may have questions or fears about what's happening with their mind, body or emotions.
Now at age 33, Carol's life is basically back to normal, although she still struggles with the possibility that she may not be able to have more children through natural means.
"As much as cancer sucked," states Carol, "I truly appreciate the many new perspectives it gave me: A glimpse of the lives of the doctors and nurses providing care. The depths of empathy of everyone on a cancer journey. And it forced me to jump off the never-ending achievement treadmill with no regrets. Life is such a gift!"