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Cancer Stage II Breast Cancer
Completed Treatment 2010
CTCA Hospital Treated at
Care Team Included
Treatments at CTCA
- Enjoying life spending time with her sons and grandkids
- Continuing to sew, and make jewelry and ceramics
- Speaks with others fighting breast cancer through the CTCA Patient-to-Patient Network
"I love my family and I love life regardless of the challenges I face. I attribute my strength to prayer, family and sticking to things I can control, and seeking help on things that are beyond my expertise. I do not worry about dying. That is God’s job and I am smart enough not to cross that line. I concentrate on living."
Helen Crosskey, Cheverly, MD
I’ve always led a busy and full life. I’ve worked since I was 14, including for more than 30 years in the telecommunications field. While working, I went to college and raised two kids, coached intramural soccer and basketball teams, mentored a young lady from freshman year through high school graduation, and served on the Board of Directors for the Boys and Girls Club in my hometown, Cheverly, Maryland.
So in March 2010 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t going to stop and give in to cancer. I looked for my way out of it. I made sure that I put all of my energy into learning what it took to stay alive and staying as healthy as I can.
How my journey with cancer began
One day I had been wearing some clothing that was a bit tighter than what I usually wear. When I took it off that evening, I noticed a lump in the center of my right breast, as well as a lump underneath my armpit. I felt both of them. I waited a few days and the one under my arm seem to disappear. But I checked the one underneath the right breast and it was still there.
I called my doctor’s office and they told me I needed to come in for screening. I had a mammogram, sonogram, MRI, and biopsy. When the results came back, a doctor called me in the evening to tell me I had stage zero breast cancer.
I went to a facility that’s 32 miles from my house for surgery to remove the tumor. It was a frustrating experience. Three days after surgery, I received a call from the doctor’s office. I was told I needed additional surgery. I asked why I needed another surgery, but no one could give me a direct answer. I decided to get a second opinion.
Discovering treatment options at CTCA
I had seen a few ads for Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) and knew of a friend who had treated there. She talked highly of CTCA and the people who worked there.
I called CTCA and spoke with a gentleman named Doug White. He explained that CTCA provided treatment options and a team of cancer experts. After checking to see if my medical insurance provider would allow me to treat at CTCA, Doug was able to schedule me for a consultation at the CTCA hospital in Philadelphia.
Three days after my initial call, I was at the hospital for tests and appointments with my doctors and other care team members. I told them I wanted to know if there was cancer anywhere else in my body, and if so, I wanted to know what my treatment options were. I had a PET/CT scan at CTCA and my doctors reviewed all of my medical records and tests, including the ones they had retrieved from the facility I had gone to for the surgery.
What I learned from my doctors at CTCA was that I had stage II breast cancer. My surgeon, Dr. Ari Brooks, told me I needed surgery to remove additional cancer cells, and the lymph nodes of concern, the sentinel nodes. If they were cancerous, he said he would need to remove all of the affected lymph nodes.
When my doctors talked to me about having surgery, they told me if the cancer had spread, I may need to have many lymph nodes for my right arm removed. This meant there was a possibility I could lose use of my right arm. I jokingly showed my medical oncologist, Dr. Sramila Aithal, pictures of my crafts, ceramics, jewelry and clothes. She asked, “Why am I looking at these pictures?” I said, “Because if I lose the use of my right arm, then you know what I was doing before you got all of my lymph nodes.” She understood how important to me it was that I keep doing all of the craft projects I love.
Dr. Aithal told me once I had surgery to remove the rest of the cancer cells and make a clean margin, I could potentially have three options for additional treatment—traditional radiation, chemo and Intraoperative Radiation Therapy (IORT). With traditional radiation, it would possibly take me six weeks, five days a week to receive the treatment. Dr. Aithal explained the side effects I would have if I had chemo. Then she described what IORT was. I said right away, “If I can have that, it’s what I want.” She explained I could qualify for IORT if the doctors discovered during surgery the cancer had not spread.
So on May 20, 2010, I had the surgery and IORT. Going into the surgery, I didn’t know if I would be able to receive IORT because Dr. Brooks first needed to make sure the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. Dr. Brooks removed four lymph nodes during the surgery. They were immediately analyzed in the laboratory so I didn’t have to wait or go through surgery again after the lymph nodes were removed and examined for cancer. Everything was done right then and there. And the good news was the lymph nodes were not cancerous. This meant I qualified for IORT.
While I was still under anesthesia and on the operating room table, I received IORT treatment. It took less than two minutes to administer the single boost of radiation. When I came out of surgery and awoke, I saw Dr. Brooks sitting right by my bed. He told me everything that happened.
Everyone who cared for me came by to see me after my surgery. They made sure I was comfortable at every level. I was hospitalized over 24 hours so that my doctors and nurses could monitor me for any swelling, bleeding or blood clots. I had some slight discomfort and my arm was numb for a while, but overall, I had no major pain or bleeding.
To help support my quality of life, I received naturopathic medicine, nutrition therapy and physical therapy at CTCA. My naturopathic provider included vitamins and other supplements in my treatment plan. My nutritionist made reasonable recommendations for modifications I could make to my diet. She worked with the foods I normally ate, suggested better ways to prepare my meals and shared recipes.
CTCA took very good care of me. And I liked the way the doctors talked to me. They didn’t speak to me as though they were better than me. Instead, they shared my medical information with me and allowed me to help make decisions about my treatment.
At CTCA, all they are doing is treating cancer. It’s not like some of the local hospitals where they deliver a baby one day and treat cancer the next.
All of the members of my team looked at me as an individual and designed my care around my needs. The treatment I received wasn’t from a cookie-cutter, it was customized to me. Everyone on my care team gave me better care than any place I had ever been to before. To name a few, I thank Dr. Aithal, Dr. Brooks, Dr. Lavagnini (my radiation oncologist), and nurse Janelle Clark Brown. I also thank Margaret in the dining hall, Brice Corbin, Mr. Brown, and so many other staff members at CTCA for all of their support. And on top of my list is Mr. Richard Stephenson, the founder of CTCA. I thank him for having the vision and heart to build these centers.
The CTCA travel team is an extension of the overall care I receive. Every time I’ve gone to CTCA, whether for treatment or a checkup, I’ve taken the train to Philadelphia. It’s a 2-hour ride. All I have to do is call the travel team and tell them I need arrangements to visit the hospital for appointments. They arrange for my train tickets, coordinate for the hospital’s transportation team to pick me up from the train station, and if I need to stay overnight, book reservations at a nearby hotel for a discounted rate.
Life after cancer
After my treatment, everything fell back into place. I was able to return to work full time within two weeks and get back to my busy life. My breast healed and today my scar is nice and smooth.
Every three months, I return to CTCA for follow-up appointments. I continue to thank God for my healing and the team at CTCA.
I love spending time with my sons, Kerry and Jevon, and my grandkids, Jayla (5) and Quartez (12), my little nurses when I was recovering. I continue to sew, make jewelry and ceramics.
I love my family and I love life regardless of the challenges I face. I attribute my strength to prayer, family and sticking to things I can control, and seeking help on things that are beyond my expertise. I do not worry about dying. That is God’s job and I am smart enough not to cross that line. I concentrate on living.
My advice for people who have been diagnosed with cancer
As a member of the Patient-to-Patient Network at CTCA, I regularly talk to people about my journey with cancer and the care I received at CTCA. What I tell people is don’t look for a way to stay in cancer, look for the best treatment that will get you out. Or if you can’t get out, look for the best treatment that will help sustain you with a good life.
Here are 10 things I tell people who are fighting cancer they can do to empower themselves:
- Learn all you can about the disease. Make changes where you can to help fight cancer or the return of cancer. Give yourself a fighting chance and look for every possible way to get rid of your cancer. And, realize there are great advances in the treatment of cancer. Treatment today is much better than it was in the past.
- Become a partner in your care. When possible, get involved with all the decisions regarding your care, ask questions and share what is going on. Use your energy to help yourself survive and try not to stress about how you think you got cancer.
- Talk about your cancer diagnosis with friends and loved ones. Talk to someone who has been there and who can share with you. Also, find out about your family’s history of cancer. It’s information you can use. Tell your family precisely what cancer you have and what is wrong. They’re in the same gene pool. They could be doing stuff to help themselves prevent the disease.
- Have a good outlook. Look forward, don’t look back. Focus on one day at a time. You can do it, but don’t give up. If you give up, you’re using that energy on negativity when a positive attitude will help you most.
- Change the things you can control, such as the food you eat, the environment you’re in, drink less alcohol, don’t do drugs, etc. And don’t wait until you have cancer before you start figuring out how to make your life and health better.
- Give someone a hug, even a “good morning.” Just because you have cancer, sometimes people walk by you like you’ve already left this world, or like you don’t have a chance with it. Give someone a hug. Cancer’s not contagious! Just hug the person. Help make their day.
- Enjoy life! Have a good time on this Earth.
- Keep your mind busy and your body moving. Even doing something like a crossword puzzle will help take your mind off cancer. Anything to get you away from what you’re dealing with for a moment—for example, exercise—will help you find your way to a better state of mind when you have cancer.
- Do your part to make the world a better place. Take control of your life and do the things that are going to improve your life, and help improve someone else’s.
- Give it your best shot. When it comes to care, you deserve the best care out there. And as far as I’m concerned, CTCA has the best care for me.