Wanda H.

Breast Cancer - Stage 1B

Wanda H

City of Hope talks about its Mother Standard® of care, but until you experience it personally, it’s hard to describe. Every staff member, from the shuttle bus driver to the doctors, are genuinely caring.

In the fall of 2019, shortly after moving into my new home in Las Vegas Valley, I noticed swelling in my breasts, which I had never experienced before. At first, I chalked it up to the heavy boxes I had been lifting during the move. When the swelling didn’t subside after a few days, I knew I should have it checked out. I had postponed my annual mammogram because of everything I had to do, but when I called my gynecologist, she recommended having the screening done right away.

After the mammogram at my local clinic, I was told I needed to have a biopsy due to a suspicious area in my left breast. Two weeks later, I was able to get an appointment for an ultrasound-guided biopsy. By this time, I was feeling more than a little anxious. I wanted to hear the news from someone I knew well, so I asked that my test results be sent to the local physician, a doctor of osteopathic medicine who also practices holistic medicine and who had cared for me for many years.

I still hung on to the hope that it was something simple, but five days later, the results were in, and my doctor explained my diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma. He recommended that I seek medical treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).*

Per my doctor’s recommendation, I started a variety of methods to support my immune system. But I waited about a week before making the call to CTCA®. I felt overwhelmed. This was supposed to happen to “other” people, not to me, I thought. What are they going to do to my body? How am I going to feel—emotionally and physically?

I was nervous and tearful when I dialed the CTCA number. But the Oncology Information Specialist was patient and understanding and took the time to explain the scheduling process. I felt safe talking to him and asked about the cost of treatment, which was a big concern after just buying a new home. He contacted my insurance company and called me back with a financial plan that I was comfortable with. The next day, a nurse called me to go over my medical records and make sure everything was accurate and up to date.

About a week later, I flew with my best friend and caregiver, Connie, to CTCA Phoenix for my evaluation. From the moment I arrived at the hospital, I knew it was different. Instead of feeling cold and clinical, the hospital was comfortable and calming. During the three-day evaluation, I had appointments with members of my care team, including my medical oncologist, surgeons and nutritional support provider. It was a whirlwind of appointments, but everything ran smoothly.

My care team and I discussed a treatment plan that included a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery on my left breast. But first, I would receive two types of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors.

Letting go of fear

In the beginning, I was afraid my body wouldn’t tolerate the treatment. But a good friend and prayer partner reminded me that God knew what I was going through, and I could trust He had brought me to the place where I needed to be for my treatment. Thanks to the support of my local doctor, my good friends and the people I met at CTCA, I was able to let go of my fears and move forward.

CTCA talks about its Mother Standard® of care, but until you experience it personally, it’s hard to describe. I was very impressed that what I needed was under one roof—doctor appointments, labs, imaging, infusion, surgery, and radiation. Also, tests were scheduled usually within a day and results (depending on the type of test) by the end of that day.  This is impressive compared to my experience in Las Vegas, where I had to wait weeks for tests and results. Also, my team of physicians met regularly to confer about my progress and any complications I may have been experiencing. The staff, from the shuttle bus driver to the doctors, are genuinely caring. They looked me in the eye and say, “Hello,” no matter what they’re doing. When they ask you how you’re feeling, you can sense that they really want to know. The chaplains and volunteers also prayed over me before my surgeries, and some of my treatments, which I found comforting.

From December 2019 to April 2020, I flew from Las Vegas to Phoenix every three weeks for chemotherapy. Before each infusion, CTCA drew blood to help determine my health status. The few abnormal readings on my lab results were barely outside of the "normal" range. Considering the chemotherapy treatments, these abnormal readings were not a surprise to my medical team. It's my belief that building up my immune system before starting chemo contributed to the mostly normal lab results and my ability to tolerate the treatments.

Road to recovery

In May, my mastectomy surgery was scheduled to be performed and would require a six-day stay. At that time, Covid-19 had hit, so Connie, a retired flight attendant, suggested we hit the road together in her truck and new RV to my appointment at CTCA.       

I considered the amount of time I was spending in airports—the two hours required for check in before the flight plus the 40-minute plane ride. Due to the pandemic, flying had also become unpredictable. One of my flights in April had been canceled three times before I was finally able to fly home.

By comparison, the four-1/2-hour drive seemed like a good idea. During our road trips, Connie and I had lots of time to talk. We shared stories, laughed, prayed and encouraged each other. We had been friends for many years, but our time on the road led to a deeper connection. I really got to know and appreciate this wonderful friend who was so generously giving her time to support me.

Everything in Connie’s camper was self-contained and convenient. We each had our own beds, plus a bathroom with shower, kitchen and fridge for snacks and water. It was quite comfortable. We were able to park in the CTCA Phoenix parking spaces designated for RVs, complete with hookups for power, water, sewer and cable TV. Connie’s dog, Sophie, traveled with us, too. We were able to take her for walks around the hospital grounds so we could all enjoy some fresh air and exercise.

Detours along the way

During my mastectomy, the surgeon found trace cancer cells in my lymph nodes. So, after I recovered from surgery, I underwent six weeks of radiation therapy. The therapy was given each day, Monday through Friday. Toward the end of my treatment, my skin started to turn red, and I developed a burning rash. I talked with a naturopathic provider, and the radiation department provided me with Medihoney® and gauze bandages, which helped clear up the skin irritation.

Due to the cancer in my lymph nodes, my oncologist recommended following up the radiation therapy with small doses of chemotherapy monthly through the end of 2020.

In 2021, I was looking forward to the new year and my reconstruction surgery. The surgeon recommended a procedure called latissimus flap breast reconstruction, which uses skin, fat and muscle from the back to reconstruct the breast. Tissue expanders, which are a type of implant, would be inserted into both of my breasts so I could have a more balanced appearance. After several months of filling the expanders with saline to stretch the skin, and after my chest and skin heal, the expanders were replaced with regular implants. I was so hoping to complete my treatments by the end of the year!

But my local gynecologist had been monitoring the lining of my uterus, and during my annual checkup, found that it had thickened considerably. Since this raises the risk of endometrial and uterine cancer, she recommended I have a total hysterectomy. My doctors agreed the breast reconstruction needed to wait until after my hysterectomy, which was completed July 2021.

I was told to expect recovery to take six to eight weeks, but mine was much slower. I struggled for several months to get my strength back. Finally, in May 2022, my CTCA plastic surgeon was able to perform the latissimus flap breast reconstruction. In June, I started the appointments to fill the expanders. I’m looking forward to the day when the final implants and reconstruction surgery will be complete. I’m praying and hoping it’s later this year; my surgeon says that’s possible if my body continues to respond well.

Reflecting on the journey

I’ve experienced many setbacks and delays during treatment. Each time, I’ve come to accept that God's timing is perfect, and He always has a reason even when I found the delays to be unsettling. Perhaps my body needed longer to heal between treatments. Or maybe a key person on the surgery or medical side had their own needs.

 I had orange and lemon trees planted in my yard and look forward to my first harvest. I’ve also gotten to know some of my neighbors, who were supportive even before they knew me well—picking up groceries for me when I was too weak to go out, giving me rides to the airport and watching over my place when I was out of town for treatments.

My local doctor recommended that I try a therapeutic spa near my home to help me relax and to keep a positive attitude, both of which I’ve done. I’ve been sustained by having a good support system consisting of family, a family of good friends, Christian brothers and sisters in my church who lift me up in prayer and by knowing that God is with me!

The best advice I can give to others going through cancer treatment is to surround yourself with encouraging people and good advice. Take it one day at a time. And most importantly, pray and put your trust in God.

* Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is now City of Hope®, working together to expand patient access to personalized, comprehensive cancer care. Because this patient testimonial was written and published before CTCA® and City of Hope joined forces, mentions of legacy CTCA locations have not been updated in the interest of maintaining the patient’s original voice and story details.