My name is Elizabeth Vines, and I am a 39-year-old Breast Cancer Survivor.
To this day whenever I tell people that I 'had' cancer, I know that most people think I must have a family history of cancer because it’s just impossible to think young people could get such a horrible disease. Well that could not be further from the truth. Only 20% of breast cancer is considered hereditary, the other 80% are just your average women like myself. I'm married to a wonderful man for the last 14 years, and have an amazing 8-year-old son.
I was 34 years old back in February of 2014 when I noticed a small pea size lump on the side of my breast. I didn't think too much of it at the time, but I thought I'd make an appointment with my family doctor anyways. A month later at my appointment I was kind of embarrassed to bring it up. We chatted as we always do, and just as I was about to leave I got up the courage to say, “I have something I wanted to ask you about.” I was able to show him without removing all clothing (big sigh of relief), and he immediately said, “You have no family history, I'm sure it’s just a cyst.” He went on to say there was no need to worry, and no further investigation needs to be done. I'm 34 years old, a non-smoker, only social drinker, active & fit (not a bodybuilder or anything...) but I thought, true, I really have no risk factors.
Months went by with no change, then one day it started to rapidly grow. It grew all the way to the size of half a lemon within just over a month. I followed up again with my doctor and he set up an ultrasound, not that he really thought it was necessary, but I was pushing for it. I waited a month for the scan and the report came back stating “all cystic components.” At this point I demanded a referral to a surgeon. I couldn't walk around with this monstrosity on me.
It took another 4 weeks to see a surgeon at the Breast Clinic at my local hospital. As soon as the surgeon looks at it, she immediately says it looks concerning. Concerning?! I have big plans today of getting my eggnog latte and Christmas shopping. Never had I thought this could be something else. I then get taken for a mammogram, and within 30 minutes I am being told I have cancer, an advanced cancer. I felt like I couldn't breathe. Immediately I become defensive, I have done my share of googling, I know it can't be diagnosed until a biopsy is done. I end up being taken for a biopsy a few hours later. At this point I'm being told I need to come back tomorrow for a CT and bone scan, all protocol for tumors over 5cm. It's now dark and raining, and all I can think about on the long drive home is how I'm not going to see my son grow up. He's 4 years old, why is this happening to me? Devastated would be an understatement.
The next few days were a blur of hospital visits and talk of things I really couldn't comprehend. The biggest disappointment was learning that my local hospital’s cancer agency couldn't get me in until the New Year, and it was November. Cancer is a frightening diagnosis, and one that needs urgency.
My husband had done the research, and called Mayo Clinic Arizona to see if we could get a second opinion. They were ranked in the top 3 in the nation and we had relatives that we could lean on there. We called on a Friday, and were told if we could be there for Monday morning, all the appointments would be set. Monday morning comes, and pulling into the Mayo Clinic parking lot the huge hospital has a magical glow about it. I was looking for a miracle and praying I would find it here in the Arizona desert. It has a reputation of excellence, and did it ever live up to it.
Right before I went into my first appointment I got a phone call from my family doctor’s office. He said the CT scan I had done last week showed metastasis to my liver. This was beyond devastating news. I then met Oncology Surgeon Dr. Richard Gray & Medical Oncologist Dr. Donald Northfelt, two absolutely amazing men who took hours with me explaining what treatment options were available, and how life would go. Dr. Gray took my hand and said “Let’s not worry about this liver report. It’s just a report and until our radiologists get to look at the images, this report means nothing, and won't affect our course of treatment at this point.”
I was initially graded as a Stage 4 cancer. A few weeks later once I had a copy of the CT scan disk sent to Mayo Clinic, their radiologists deemed my liver lesion was a benign hemangioma, not metastasis – the best news I ever could have heard. I was then downgraded to a Stage 3b cancer.
I had no idea there were different types of breast cancer, and honestly I don't think a lot of it sank in. But my husband had stayed up nights researching it all and knew all the questions to ask. A large obstacle was that my biopsy from back home hadn't been completed yet. My HER2 FISH test was still processing. I was told I should immediately start on a base chemo while we wait for the results. My cancer was spreading, and I really didn't have another day to wait. It had spread to my lymph nodes just in the last 7 days.
On my second round of chemo (2 weeks apart), my biopsy results came back HER2positive, along with estrogen- and progesterone-positive. With this news, my treatment was going to drastically change. I had gone from having the most common type, to not as common, 1 in 6 breast cancers are HER2+, and much more aggressive.
I tried to go back home once I had a full treatment plan, but I was told not all those drugs were available to me. The oncologist there told me she was unsure of the liver lesion and with the treatment plan they could offer me, I wouldn't see my son graduate elementary school.
I started on Herceptin, Perjeta along with Taxol & Carboplatin. Herceptin and Perjeta were pretty new drugs that are targeted therapies for people with my type of cancer. And now I know these drugs have taken a cancer that used to be the worst, and have taken it to first. I had 6 rounds of these targeted therapies along with chemo every 3 weeks for 4 months. I'm not going to lie, I definitely wasn't well, but I am grateful to have made it through that time without any real complications. Once I started researching Perjeta & Herceptin I found the drug manufacturer offered financial assistance for those without insurance. I thought this must be too good to be true. I filled out the applications and had my doctor’s office do the same. I ended up being taken into Genentech’s Access to Care Foundation. It was a wonderful gift to have a huge financial burden lifted. There are so many costs for cancer treatment, but having the targeted therapies covered was an amazing gift.
One month later and it’s time for surgery. In order for treatment to be most effective it has to be right on schedule, time matters. Once they removed the tumor I would know how successful the treatment has been. I already knew that it had been working miracles. I couldn't even feel a lump anymore! During that one month off for time to recover from my last round of chemo, I met with my Oncology Surgeon (Dr. Richard Gray), and Plastic Surgeon (Dr. Raman Mahabir). A mastectomy was my only option, but I was happy to hear I was a candidate for immediate reconstruction.
I had the surgery on April 1st (I know April Fools) and it was a complete success. My 12cm tumor had shrunk to 4mm with less than 1% living cancer left, and the lymph nodes were cancer free. These drugs I had worked wonders, and I couldn't be more grateful!
I know I still had a long road ahead with 28 rounds of Radiation and I had to continue on the targeted therapy Herceptin for an entire year. I actually didn't mind going back to the chemo room every 3 weeks for Herceptin treatments. My hair was starting to grow back and I felt like I was getting stronger every day. There was minimal laying sick on the bathroom floor, hooray for that! There is a sense of security seeing your oncologist and getting targeted drugs, it like a safety net. No cancer could possibly grow while I'm taking these! Well now I guess I have to feel that way about just taking Tamoxifen now. Tamoxifen is an estrogen blocking therapy. I will be on it for the next 10 years after treatment. It's a once a day reminder of what I've been through.
I am so lucky to have such amazing doctors, nurses and all the staff at Mayo Clinic Arizona looking after me. Every day I am thankful that a drug company called Genentech has made these life changing, or shall I say lifesaving drugs. I am one hundred percent certain a combination of the both have saved my life.
If you are reading this and have breast cancer please be an advocate for your own health. Make sure you know all of your options and get the best treatment plan for you. It's important to stay positive and know you can beat this and one day it will be in the past.
Now today I am coming up to my 3-year cancer-free anniversary and am so grateful for life... and hair again ;)