During Breast Cancer Awareness month in October, the numbers can be frightening. One in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates 2,870 Oklahomans will be diagnosed this year.
Elaine Barber refused to let cancer scare her even when doctors diagnosed her on Halloween - October 31, 2011. Adding to the stress, Elaine was going through a divorce.
"I always tell people it was not a trick and not a treat," the Bixby resident said with a laugh. "I found it first and then I had a mammogram, had a biopsy and it was confirmed that it was breast cancer."
This kindergarten teacher read up on options to fight aggressive HER2 positive cancer and sought out a second opinion. She turned to Dr. Sagun Shrestha, oncologist and Medical Director of Pharmacy at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, to develop a treatment plan.
"Even when they are caught at a later stage, these days we have multiple options of targeted chemotherapy," Dr. Shrestha said.
Elaine was intrigued by IORT therapy or interoperative radioactive therapy treatment the hospital offered. According to CTCA, IORT gives breast cancer patients the option to undergo nipple-sparing surgeries. This means they can receive the medical benefit of a full mastectomy, while leaving the nipple and areola fully intact.
"And it was a surgery where they apply radiation to the breast at the time of surgery,” Barber said. “And at that time when I had it done, CTCA was the only facility in the United States doing it.”
Breast cancer is the most common cancer treated by physicians at CTCA. Approximately 16 percent of CTCA patients have breast cancer followed closely by lung cancer. Fortunately, oncologists today have more options for treatment than ever before, such as:
- Breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy
- Radiation therapy
- Hormone therapy and/or targeted therapy
Since diagnosis, the team of physicians at CTCA attacked Elaine's cancer with IORT, chemotherapy and radiation. Elaine also enrolled in a one-year clinical trial. Last year, Dr. Rola Eid reconstructed Barber's breast to restore her symmetrical and feminine appearance. When chemotherapy made Elaine's hair fall out, she celebrated the change in pictures that she now shares in hopes that other women will learn their risk of breast cancer. As an educator, she learned about her cancer and treatment options and encourages other women to seek out the information they need to make an informed decision.
According to Dr. Shrestha, breast cancer risks include:
- gender (though men can develop breast cancer, too)
- heavy drinking
- family history
With no family history of breast cancer to alert her to any risk, Elaine believes it is vital for women to pay attention to their bodies. Be aware of changes, and if you find something, do not be afraid to get it checked, she said. Regular mammograms are recommended.
"Even though I have been three years NED (No evidence of Disease) it is still very important for me to have regular scans and checks ups because of the nature of this type of cancer,” Elaine said. “Its behavior is aggressive and metastatic."
"I’ve lost too many friends to this type of cancer because before they know it, it has spread and/or gone to the brain. Mostly this happened because they were never told the risk of it being so aggressive."
Despite some controversy over what age women should have a baseline mammogram, many physicians, including Dr. Shreshta, agree 40 is optimal. She recommends women at higher risk talk with their doctor about the best treatment plan to detect any problems early.
"Early diagnosis, early treatment makes the whole prognosis change and it's a simple screening test. A mammogram can save a woman's life," Dr. Shreshta said.
Six years after diagnosis, Elaine's doctors see no sign of cancer. As one of the 89 percent of breast cancer patients who now survive more than five years, Elaine has a suggestion for others with loved ones or friends who are battling cancer. She believes the best thing you can do for a cancer patient is "hug them, support them, embrace the decisions they make and do not offer the latest and greatest treatment someone told you about."
Now, Elaine plans to marry her fiance Rick and spend time with her sons when they come home from college. While the intensity of treatment kept her from returning to teaching full time, she volunteers several days a week to help developmentally disabled children. Her goal is simply to celebrate life.
"Cancer is scary, but I'm proof you can get through it not only once but twice,” she said.
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