“Knowing that I had to do chemo scared me more than the cancer itself,” says Lisa Giles about her breast cancer diagnosis. “I had to come to terms with that. I had to tell my friends and family.”
Dread about chemotherapy is a common feeling among cancer patients, but Lisa says she came to terms with it by praying and trusting her oncology team, including her medical oncologist, Ajay Dhakal, M.B.B.S.
Lisa’s breast cancer was estrogen-receptor positive and HER2-negative, so Dr. Dhakal had her tumor assessed using the Oncotype DX test, a genomic test that evaluated the biology of Lisa’s tumor. It provides a score to show the likelihood of a recurrence. While some patients are able to bypass chemo if they have a low score, patients benefit from chemotherapy if they have scores of 26 or higher.
That’s where Lisa’s number fell.
So, despite dreading it, Lisa had chemotherapy. Her team helped her through eight rounds, including side effects: hair loss, skin changes, dizziness and anemia. In August, she was able to ring the “chemo bell” at Wilmot’s Pluta Cancer Center, and it packed a punch.
“I’m not a huge crier but it was very emotional when I realized I got through those eight treatments,” she says. “I rang the bell and I turned and looked around and saw all the staff and everyone who was there for me through the whole process … it was so emotional to endure something like that, but they were so wonderful. On my down days, when I would come in for treatment, they lifted me up.”
Next, Lisa received 20 rounds of radiation therapy, which she describes as easier than chemotherapy. During radiation treatment, she returned to work. Lisa’s radiation oncologist, Marilyn Ling, M.D., helped her take advantage of services available through Wilmot’s Pluta Integrative Oncology & Wellness Center — such as massages and meetings with a registered dietitian to learn about a healthy diet during and after treatment.
But the emotions came surging back as she finished radiation therapy on Sept. 30.
“That was like my blanket and my shield, the chemo and the radiation,” she says. “They were awful to go through, but it protected me. So what’s going to protect me now from this? Will it come back? All sorts of things were going through my mind.”
Cancer arouses a lot of emotions, good and bad, and Lisa is learning to manage them. Her story began in the winter of 2019, when she almost put off her annual mammogram but resisted the urge.
That day, the cancer showed up on her imaging and later she learned it was estrogen-receptor (ER) positive.
A friend agreed to help her find “the best surgeon,” and they discovered Kristin Skinner, M.D., a clinician/scientist who serves as Chief of Surgical Oncology at Wilmot. Dr. Skinner performed a lumpectomy in March at Highland Hospital. In addition to support from three of Lisa’s girlfriends in attendance that day, Dr. Skinner’s encouraging words had an impact before surgery.
“She came in and she reassured me,” Lisa says of Skinner. “We talked and she already said I was a survivor that day, before she even put her hands on me.”
Lisa went home with minimal pain and recovered for two weeks before returning to work as a rehabilitation certified nurse assistant. Pathological analysis revealed that Lisa’s excised breast tissue had clear margins and no signs the cancer had spread to surrounding lymph nodes.
For the next five years she will take hormonal therapy — and also try to keep an upbeat outlook. She’s looking forward to traveling, perhaps going to Las Vegas for her 50th birthday next year, and celebrating what’s ahead.
“I want to walk away from 2019 and go into 2020 with a new frame of mind and realize that this definitely has changed my life,” Lisa says. “I’m not the same person that I was before this”.
While finding her new normal is hard and worry about the future creeps in often, she continues to remind herself she has done all she could and aims to move forward with courage.
“I just have to pray on that and realize that I’ve got a good road ahead of me,” she says.