My team helped me fight triple-negative breast cancer at UCLA
— By Jennifer Greenhut
I was a healthy singer, songwriter and yoga teacher. I had recently married, and had been trying to have a baby. About a year and a half later, I received my cancer diagnosis.
I was so freaked out because it was the last thing I expected. I had felt a lump under my armpit, but I had recently had a mammogram and seen my gynecologist for my annual check-up. So I wasn't worried it would be anything other than a cyst or fatty tissue.
My doctor sent me to a specialist, who alarmed me by telling me that it was something serious. Within a week, I went from thinking I was 100 percent healthy to finding out I possibly had stage IV triple-negative breast cancer.
The doctor who did that first biopsy told me I needed to find an oncologist. My husband and I asked all of our friends who had known people with cancer. We set up three appointments. My last appointment was at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center with Dr. Dennis Slamon. Dr. Slamon had treated a dear family friend almost 25 years earlier.
He was the only doctor to make me feel safe right away. I felt so sure that I wanted him as my doctor. Next was the discussion. I was told that, yes, I have triple-negative breast cancer, and a big tumor in my right breast. And it was definitely in multiple lymph nodes. My brain MRI came back and was clear. But triple-negative is very aggressive and can only be treated with chemo.
Dr. Slamon said the order of events would be chemo, followed by a double mastectomy, then six weeks of radiation, and one last surgery for reconstruction (which is when they would remove my ovaries). If all went well, chemo would kill all (or most) of the cancer, and removing the breasts would technically make me cancer-free.
Once I started chemo, I consciously wanted it to be a "good" experience, not a sad one. So I tried to make it fun. I bought different color wigs. I enjoyed the naps. I basically focused on all the positives, instead of the negatives.
Everyone was very supportive at UCLA. Dr. Slamon would check me to make sure the tumor was shrinking and to make sure I was doing okay physically. I loved going to get my check-ups, because my tumor was shrinking so fast. It filled me, and him, with so much positive energy. I remember his shock after the third week of chemo, almost not being able to feel my tumor. It was huge before (5.7 cm) and now it was almost gone. We were both so happy about it.
During my chemo rounds, I loved all the UCLA nurses who were there taking care of me. It was such a positive environment, and as much as you would hate going to chemo, I looked forward to it in a way. This was because every round was a round closer to the end of treatment. With regards to all seven of my surgeries, thankfully they all went according to the plan, and I always felt safe. My surgeons, Dr. Maggie DiNome, Dr. Christopher Crisera, and Dr. Joshua Cohen, all knew what they were doing. I was in good hands.
I had a great team of family and friends. They came with me for every doctor appointment, and also chemo rounds. I was fortunate enough to have most of my family here in Los Angeles. I called them my “dream team." I had them with me for every appointment, and the “traveling” team included my mom, Ellen, my younger and much taller sister, Caryn, my husband, Larry, and last but not least, my service dog, Bo. We had to have him with us whenever he was allowed. My dad, Robert, was also part of the team, but on the side lines. He stayed at home, on the reserve list, waiting by the phone, ready to take care of anything needed.
It’s been a little over three years since I’ve been in remission. I see all my doctors every six months, including Dr. Slamon and my radiologist Dr. Susan McCloskey. And the statistics for the cancer coming back go down every year. So I am positive my cancer is never coming back!
What advice do I have for others fighting cancer?
When you are looking for a doctor, I would say how important it is to get at least a couple of doctor opinions and see who you connect with best. It is so important to find someone with whom you are willing to put 100 percent of your life in their hands.
Try to switch your perspective about cancer, as scary as it is. I saw it as an opportunity — an opportunity to learn lessons that have made me a better person through endurance. I believe there is a reason for it!
Stay grateful for every day, and even keeping a daily gratitude list or journal is very helpful.
I would advise looking at chemo as medicine that is saving your life. Being thankful for everything, as hard as it is. Surrendering to the process is much better than fighting it.
Ask for help, for support, from loved ones and caregivers. Appreciate everyone who wants to be there for you.
But the biggest thing is believing in your team of doctors... and I found my team at UCLA.