October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Thousands of women every year will be diagnosed with breast cancer and, for many, a breast self exam will be the first step on their journey.

October 1, 2015

Surviving Breast Cancer: Self Exams Remain Important Part of Early Detection

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Thousands of women every year will be diagnosed with breast cancer and, for many, a breast self exam will be the first step on their journey. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc., almost 40 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer found a lump during a self examination. Keelar Lovelace is one of those women.

“In July 2014, I was just doing my normal breast exam and I found a lump,” Keelar said. “June 1 it wasn’t there, July 1 it was. I immediately found a doctor and went and got it examined.”

A long-time resident of D.C., Keelar (pictured left) and her family had moved to Lexington Park, Maryland, several years ago. After finding the lump and consulting a doctor, her life became a whirlwind of tests and consultations.

“It went from ‘it’s just a cyst’ to ‘go get an ultrasound’ and from the ultrasound, ‘it’s not a cyst — let’s get a biopsy.’” Exactly two weeks after she celebrated her thirtieth birthday, she was told she had breast cancer. “This is a birthday present no one wants,” Keelar said.

At stage III, Keelar’s cancer was aggressive so she began chemotherapy almost immediately. “She had a large mass, not favorable for surgery up front,” said Patricia Wehner, MD (pictured right), a breast surgeon with the MedStar Breast Health Program at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “For a lot of patients like Keelar, we give chemotherapy first. The goal is to shrink or reduce tumors to make surgery easier and more cosmetically favorable.”

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Keelar received 12 weeks of chemotherapy at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’s Cancer Care and Infusion Services. “I don’t think I ever want to go through that again,” Keelar said. “It killed my appetite, it took my hair, it made me very fragile and weak. As soon as I started, I was like, ‘I am ready to get off of this right now.’”

Despite the struggle, she believes it was an important step on the road to being cancer free. “The medicine worked perfectly and I really do think it killed it all. I probably would not have even needed the surgery if I hadn’t had a lymph node affected.”

“Ultimately, Keelar decided to have a full mastectomy and an implant-based reconstruction even though she had a fantastic response to the chemotherapy,” said Dr. Wehner who performed Keelar’s mastectomy and axillary lymph node dissection in March.

“I was scared and nervous,” Keelar said. “Dr. Wehner answered all my questions; she made sure I had her undivided attention when I needed it. She even helped my husband get through the whole surgery. That was the first major surgery I had in my life. I am thankful and grateful for all the staff did to help me get through this.”

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Now seeing patients at MedStar Women’s Specialty Center in Leonardtown, Maryland, Dr. Wehner is a fellowship-trained breast surgical oncologist and member of the MedStar Breast Health Program. “I only do breast healthcare — that is where my focus and passion lie.

“Coming to St. Mary’s from MedStar Washington Hospital Center, I will be able to expose patients here to the latest trials generally only open at larger institutions. There are trials looking at whether a full axillary lymph node dissection is necessary for patients with lymph nodes that respond to chemotherapy. These patients may be able to have less surgery, and have the same overall outcomes as patients who go through more extensive surgeries, which could have higher complication rates and possible higher postoperative issues.”

Keelar was in the hospital for a day following the surgery and had to schedule several follow-up appointments with Dr. Wehner and the surgeon who performed her breast reconstruction. This past summer, she finished radiation therapy and is hoping to complete the last phase of her reconstruction early next year.

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“The radiation went well, and I am just taking it day by day and looking forward to being able to go back to work,” Keelar said. “I am glad it showed its face now and I am able to do everything I can to get rid of it.”

“People get caught up in the diagnosis and just want to do everything possible to get rid of the cancer,” said Dr. Wehner. “The goal of seeing a breast specialist is for the doctor to really work with you and understand your expectations so we can treat you and deal with the cancer and still have you looking healthy and feeling like yourself and be proud of your body afterward.”

According to Dr. Wehner, the Washington, D.C. area has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the country and she is seeing younger patients with breast cancer as well as more aggressive cancers.

“We are better at removing tumors and understanding the cosmetic outcome of it,” said Dr. Wehner. “We’ve gotten better with our drugs in order to treat cancer. We’ve gotten better at choosing which breast cancer patients need chemotherapy. We’ve gotten better at tailoring the radiation treatments, even to the point that some patients can get radiation in the operating room and don’t need to do it after surgery.”

Dr. Wehner said breast self exams remain a very important part of detection and screening. “I see a lot of women who come in with masses who would have presented earlier if they simply did a self exam.”

Having a family history of breast cancer and two young daughters, Keelar is vigilant about breast self exams and has already begun educating her teenage daughter about how important they are. “I ask every woman I talk to if they do their breast exam,” said Keelar. “It saved my life and it could save another woman’s life, too.”

 

Tramont and Diana

Dr. Wehner is now seeing patients at the MedStar Women’s Specialty Center in Leonardtown, Maryland. John Tramont, MD (left) is the leading gynecologist and pelvic surgeon with MedStar Women's Specialty Center. A specialist in urogynecology, his services include correction of urinary incontinence and, in particular, stress incontinence resulting from childbirth or age, pelvic organ prolapse, and treatment of interstitial cystitis and pelvic pain. He also offers urodynamic testing in the office. Also at the MedStar Women's Specialty Center is Lorraine Diana, CRNP (left). She offers annual exams, contraceptive management, menopause management, common gynecological disorder management, vulvar and vaginal biopsies, insertion of intrauterine or implanted contraceptives, and colposcopies among other services. To make an appointment, call 301-250-1451. 

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Need a mammogram? We've got you covered? 

Scheduling a mammogram for the first time or need a yearly appointment? Schedule your mammogram with MedStar St. Mary's Hospital during the month of October and receive a free pink and white Breast Cancer Awareness umbrella when you arrive for your appointment!

To make an appointment with any of these specialists, call 301-250-1451.