When Laura, mother of two, felt a lump in her breast, she assumed her milk ducts were clogged. She was about to stop breastfeeding her infant son and knew mastitis was often a side effect. But the lump didn't go away. Two months later, she visited her gynecologist, who immediately sent her to Dr. Peter Naruns at El Camino Health for a biopsy.
In January 2017, Laura received a diagnosis of stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) that involved several lymph nodes. She was also found to be BRCA2 positive — at very high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
"I didn't think at all about cancer," recalls Laura. "I thought it was just a clogged milk duct. There was no pain so I thought it would go away."
After the jolting diagnosis, things moved really fast. Dr. Naruns referred her to top oncologist, Dr. Shane Dormady, and his renowned team at El Camino Health. Laura and Dr. Dormady agreed on an aggressive treatment based on her age (39) and stage. It would include chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation, menopausal hormone therapy, and eventually, when Laura is ready, she will undergo surgical menopause.
As Laura recalls, "Dr. Dormady said, 'So that we have the best chance of beating this, I'm going to throw it all at you,' and we started with chemo right away to shrink the tumor."
Swept Along on a Wave of Care
By February, Laura was visiting the treatment center at Mountain View regularly for a dose dense regimen of the chemotherapy drugs Adriamycin and Cytoxan with Taxol (AC-T).
"The Cancer Center at Mountain View is such a great environment — nice, private and quiet," shares Laura. "The nurses are outstanding, really knowledgeable. They knew how to help me with extra hydration and the right balance of meds to manage nausea. They get to know you and are so caring and supportive."
Buoyed by Emotional Support and Meaningful Work
"I'd work all week except Thursdays, when I'd take off for chemo," says Laura. She had just joined the team at Gilead Sciences as a research scientist working to develop investigational medicines in the formulation and process development group.
But she also made sure to find the emotional support she needed for this life-altering journey.
"During chemo, I joined a great support group called BAYS, Bay Area Young Survivors. You can learn so much from what people have been through," says Laura. "It is very emotional, and they're all there to tell you it's OK and to help you navigate through treatment and beyond. Understanding and support is very important."
A Double Mastectomy, Radiation and Breast Reconstruction
In August, Dr. Naruns performed a skin and nipple-sparing surgery to remove the affected breast tissue. To prepare for breast reconstruction after radiation, Laura's surgeons inserted temporary expanders to maintain breast shape in the absence of breast tissue.
"I wore the expanders throughout radiation, which began six weeks after surgery," recalls Laura. She highly praises the patient interaction she enjoyed with Dr. Robert Sinha, radiation oncologist, and the radiation nurses who took care of her.
In December 2017, Laura was done with radiation. In April of 2018, Dr. John Connolly performed the permanent breast implant surgery. "I had a pretty quick recovery," says Laura. "I only needed two weeks off."
Treatment Continues, but Life Doesn’t Slow Down
"It happened so fast, I can’t believe it's been four years since my diagnosis," marvels Laura. Her son is now 5 and her daughter 9. "Life continues on as it must with children, school, marriage and my research work."
In 2020, Laura worked tirelessly with her Gilead colleagues on an investigational medicine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. "I was so honored to be able to work on such an important project with highly dedicated coworkers all focused on bringing our treatment option to patients in need," reflects Laura.
Now at age 44, Laura has been put into menopause and is learning how to deal with that. "I have the body of an older lady now. Chemotherapy and the hormone therapy have impacted my bone density. I'm not as strong physically as I was before and need to start working out again regularly to build my muscles and bones back up," says Laura.
After four years, however, her cancer journey isn't over. Laura’s treatment plan includes menopausal hormone therapy for a total of 10 years and regular check-ins with Dr. Dormady and his team. Laura is choosing to undergo a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) with a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (the removal of both ovaries and both fallopian tubes) to further reduce her genetic cancer risk. For the next few years, she will be relying on the support she gets from BAYS and the "awesome" experience she continues to have with El Camino Health.