Breast Cancer Treatments Return a Young Mother to Her Children
At age 34, during the summer of 2016, Shanthi Drescher was full of plans for the future. She would furnish a new house in Cranberry Township; explore a new city — Pittsburgh — with her husband Walter and their two-year-old twin sons, David and Leroy. She was even considering returning to work as a mechanical engineer. A diagnosis of stage-3 breast cancer was not part of her plans.
Shanthi found a lump in her breast, but because if changed in size over time, she thought it wasn’t serious. But when she developed a sharp, shooting pain in her left arm and was unable to pick up her boys, she saw her primary care doctor, Dr. Dina Myers. Dr. Myers ordered a mammogram. By August they knew Shanthi had breast cancer.
At first, Shanthi was overwhelmed. “I was in the best shape physically, riding my bike a lot. Cancer was not in my family history. My first question was, ‘Why me?’” she said. “I know now that no one has the answer to that. I truly believe this happened for a reason, and something amazing will come out of this.”
“I was very emotional,” said Shanthi. “My boys were so young. Who was going to take care of them? They needed their mother.”
“It wasn’t until I met with Dr. Duggal that I understood it was treatable, not fatal. She was more than a doctor. She became like family to me,” Shanthi said. “She explained everything. It was very comforting to me and my family.”
Setting a personalized plan for treatment
“When the mammogram showed an abnormality, Shanthi came to me,” said Dr. Shivani Duggal, a breast surgeon at the Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion. “Triple negative breast cancer is aggressive, but the patient can benefit from chemotherapy. So we treated Shanthi aggressively up front, and now are hoping for a good prognosis.”
A biopsy of the breast tissue was tested for hormone receptors, which feed off of estrogen and progesterone. This hormone test was negative, meaning the cancer wouldn’t respond to endocrine therapy.
“This is an aggressive cancer, which must be treated with chemotherapy,” said Dr. Duggal. “Her two lymph nodes were also affected.”
Together, Dr. Duggal and Shanthi came up with a plan to defeat her cancer. “It made me feel better, to have some control over it,” Shanthi said.
“We wanted to preserve the breast, so we started with chemotherapy to shrink the tumors to a size where a lumpectomy would be possible, rather than a mastectomy,” explained Dr. Duggal.
It wasn’t going to be an easy road. Dr. Casey Moffa, DO, was Shanthi’s medical oncologist. She recommended 16 sessions of chemotherapy over 18 weeks.
“Chemotherapy was rough both physically and mentally,” Shanthi said. “I had to deal with fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, constipation, hair loss, nail loss etc. I couldn't have faced these side effects and come out stronger without the abundant love and support from my family.”
Oncology care close to home
The surgery, chemotherapy, and later radiology treatments were all done at the Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion, less than 15 minutes from Shanthi’s home.
“Aside from a couple of tests at Allegheny General and Forbes hospitals, all my care and doctors were at Wexford, “Shanthi said. “This helped a lot. My mom was staying with us to care for the boys, and having all my cancer treatments close to home gave me more time with my family.”
“Dr. Duggal and I even talked to the plastic surgeon at the end of December about a mastectomy, so I would be prepared for the worst case scenario,” Shanthi said.
Services for younger women with cancer
AHN’s Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion also houses the Home for Hope for pre-menopausal women with breast cancer, supported by the Glimmer of Hope Foundation. This program acknowledges their special challenges, such as responsibilities for careers and families. These women get help from a patient care navigator, who will coordinate appointments, a nutritionist, free child care during treatments, and massage or acupuncture sessions.
Shanthi had ongoing imaging, so her doctors could see that the tumors in the axilla (armpit) and breast were now smaller. In January, Dr. Duggal performed a lumpectomy with sentinel node section. She removed 11 nodes and only one had cancer. “We were very happy with that result,” said Shanthi.
Shanthi next met with radiation oncologist Athanasios Colonias, MD, who supervised 22 sessions of daily radiology, through mid-April 2017. “It is not as rough as the chemo side effects, but I’m fatigued and have some trouble swallowing,” said Shanthi.
Once again, Shanthi is planning happily for the future. “Every day is a blessing, and I want to embrace it with a grateful heart. I want to make memories with my boys and be there for them. We haven’t had a chance to explore Pittsburgh with them — the zoo, museums and waterparks. I’m looking forward to when I’m done and don’t have to think about it anymore. All of us are.”