Battling breast cancer one step at a time
By Correne Martin
Vicki Taylor wakes up every day and finds something positive on which to focus her thoughts and her energy. She has always taken good care of her health and been an upbeat person. So when Vicki heard her doctor say a mammogram detected a small mass in her left breast, she wasn’t too concerned. But a needle biopsy later found the lump to be cancerous. A trace of the disease was also discovered in her lymph nodes, which meant, at the age of 61, Vicki had breast cancer. The diagnosis, HER2 positive metastatic breast cancer, came in March of 2013.
“Initially I thought, ‘I’m 61 and I’ve lived a good life. I’m just going to continue on and not do anything.’ But my kids had a different idea for me,” said Vicki, who lives in Prairie du Chien with her adult daughter. Her two sons live in Oregon (Wis.).
A mastectomy was Vicki’s initial decision. Yet, thanks to an eye-opening comment from her doctor, that determination changed.
“The doctor asked me, ‘If this was your finger, would you cut your whole arm off?’ I thought that was a good way of looking at it,” she said.
After seriously weighing her options, Vicki made up her mind. She was going to have a lumpectomy, to remove the tumor from her left breast. Prior to the surgery, an MRI was done. The exam’s results showed a second mass on the chest wall of Vicki’s right breast too. This lump was determined to be pre-cancerous; however, a double lumpectomy was considered the best decision.
According to Dr. Michael Ojelabi, a medical oncologist who has been with Gundersen Health System for three years, the lumps were both very small. The cancerous mass was about the size of a pen tip.
“They were so small that she couldn’t feel them,” Ojelabi stated. “That’s the importance of screening and finding the cancer early. We can almost always treat cancer with curative intent if we find it early. Most people who have breast cancer are going to live.”
In evaluating a person’s breast cancer, doctors take into account the size of the cancer, the location of it, how far it has spread, whether the cancer cells are estrogen or progesterone based, and also the person’s overall health. Ojelabi said all these details confirm the stage, and impact the kinds of treatments that can be done. There are a multitude of treatments, including surgery, chemo, radiation and even pills (for the smallest and most localized tumors).
“If it’s advanced, it doesn’t mean it’s not treatable. Most cancer is treatable,” Ojelabi reassured.
Currently, Vicki’s treatment regimen consists of a half-hour of chemotherapy every other Tuesday for four months, and 15 minutes of radiation therapy, Monday through Friday, for six weeks (or 33 treatments). Vicki travels to La Crosse for her radiation. However, thanks to a relatively new program, Vicki is able to undergo chemo locally, at either the Gundersen clinic or at Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital.
Keeping her positive state of mind, Vicki is pleased to have completed four weeks of radiation already.
Vicki agreed to be interviewed during a recent chemotherapy session and, appearing extraordinarily well and strong, she smiled and chatted with the staff the majority of the time.
“I really feel I’ve benefitted from having my chemo treatments in Prairie,” she pointed out. “You can come in, get it over with and go home or go back to work.”
Still employed full-time at Wyalusing Academy in Prairie du Chien (where they’ve allowed her to work nights and weekends as she needs), Vicki said she also looks forward to the moments of relaxation she relishes during chemo. She enjoys covering up with a warm blanket, reading a book, snacking or even sleeping during her treatments.
“They have everything set up so nice. They have a TV and a table for your books,” she added. “Everyone I’ve encountered since I was diagnosed—the staff, the doctors—has been so understanding and caring. As ugly as the word ‘cancer’ is, these people make you feel like you’re the only person they have to see. They ask you if you’re OK and they keep up with what you’re doing in your life.
“It would be even better if I could have my radiation in Prairie.”
Dr. Ojelabi sees Vicki every two weeks in Prairie du Chien. He said chemo treatments in rural communities like Prairie du Chien are really a “lifesaver for older people who have a hard time traveling” to La Crosse.
“This allows them to still work with their local primary care doctors and then I work with the doctors to administer what is best for the patients,” he said. “We also have telemedicine abilities, through which I can see my patients via a computer screen or talk to them on the phone during their appointments.”
Now, almost eight months after her diagnosis, Vicki is counting down the days until her treatments are over.
“It goes by more quickly than you would think. Finding something to look forward to has always been the way I’ve lived my life. It’s the only way I know how to be,” she said.
Doctors feel that once Vicki’s treatments are completed, she will be in remission.
Ironically, Vicki’s cancer is not hereditary despite her mom and one of three sisters also having lived with breast cancer at one time. Today, both are cancer free—her mom for 20 years and her sister for five years.
“I’m hopeful that I’ll have the same prognosis and be a cancer survivor,” she said confidently.
That positive outlook—as well as her loving mom, children, sisters and other supporters—are what keeps pushing Vicki to beat breast cancer. It gets her to work on those days she feels sick. It motivates her to stay active and busy when she can. It reminds her to hydrate herself, get her sleep and take really good care of her body.
It also inspires her to spread the important message of self-breast exams and mammograms for the purpose of early detection.
“The goal is to find the cancer, treat it and get on with life. You just have to think that in five years, the moment you’re in is going to be so insignificant,” she said. “I don’t get out of bed and pity myself because I have cancer. I focus on what’s good in my life.”