Nearly nine years ago, there was a moment when Traci Cook looked in the mirror, and the person staring at her was almost unrecognizable. Between a bald head, a collapsed chest and a skinny body, Traci could barely handle the transformation of her normal self.
“I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Who are you?’” she recalls. “As women, we are told we are beautiful, or we strive to be beautiful. I wasn’t that pretty girl anymore. I looked like an alien and couldn’t recognize myself. I sat in the bathroom that day and just cried, not knowing who or what I was anymore.”
As traumatic as that was, Traci, a business development specialist at INTEGRIS Health, is proud to call herself a breast cancer survivor. With the help of her family and the team at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute, Traci was able to overcome the most difficult journey of her life. This is her story.
Understanding the diagnosis
A routine mammogram screening turned into a gloomy day for Traci on January 28, 2013. Traci showed up at the INTEGRIS Comprehensive Breast Center for her annual scan and left with life-changing news: The radiologist found a small “shadow” on her right breast near the armpit.
The extent of this “shadow” was unknown. Three additional mammograms failed to fully diagnose the problem. Finally, an ultrasound identified two masses in her right breast. It was only after her first breast cancer surgery that she received an official diagnosis: stage 2 invasive lobular carcinoma in her right breast and lobular carcinoma in situ (precancerous cells) in her left breast.
“I was afraid of the unknown future, how chemotherapy would affect me and how losing my breasts would affect me,” Traci recalls. “I didn’t understand what estrogen-positive cancer meant and that scared me too.”
Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) is the second most common invasive breast cancer, accounting for 10 percent of cases or 180,000 women per year. This type of cancer originates in the lobes, a gland in the breast that makes milk. The invasive aspect means that the cancer has spread to the surrounding breast tissues. Depending on the severity, it can also attack nearby lymph nodes or other organs.
ILC is usually harder to see on imaging because the cancer cells spread in a line formation rather than developing a lump or mass like other types of breast cancer. Many cases of ILC are usually estrogen receptor positive, meaning the hormone estrogen attaches to the receptors and accelerates cancer growth.
Treatment of invasive lobular carcinoma
The diagnosis for Traci was just the beginning. Her doctors were quick to tell her that “time was not my friend” due to the rapidly spreading nature of invasive lobular carcinoma.
Just 15 days after her diagnosis, Traci was scheduled for a double mastectomy, a procedure that involves removing both breasts. Her oncologist later told her she would need four months of chemotherapy to make sure the cancer and precancerous cells were destroyed.
“Everyone is always talking about chemo being so awful, but my oncologist really took precautions to control my side effects,” Traci says. “I lost a lot of weight, but never got too sick. She made sure I slept comfortably during the worst days. I have never missed a day of work while undergoing chemotherapy.”
Instead, Traci’s mastectomy was painful to recover from. After surgery, she developed lymphedema in her arm, a condition in which fluid builds up due to damage or blockage of the lymphatic system. She was treated at the INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Center, where she received valuable information from the physical therapist to help relieve the swelling.
Getting through the hardest time
Traci called on July 3, 2013, nearly six months after her initial diagnosis. She was proud that she had progressed through treatment while still being able to continue to work and provide for her family.
“I was relieved to be done and ready to move on,” she recalls.
However, the hardest part of her journey was yet to come. Many cancer patients who undergo mastectomy ultimately choose to undergo breast reconstruction to restore the shape and appearance of their previous breasts.
This process was incredibly painful for Traci, both mentally and physically. She was not a prime candidate for reconstruction surgery, so she had to wait a year after her double mastectomy.
Traci initially had tissue expanders surgically placed in her chest, which were checked weekly by a plastic surgeon. These temporary implants are expanded with saline to gradually stretch the breast tissue to make room for the implants.
A few weeks after the expansion, she began to feel a burning sensation under her left arm. A trip to the emergency room revealed that she had an infection, although it was not clear what type. IV antibiotics didn’t help, leading to days of testing to make a diagnosis. Finally, doctors discovered that she had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterial infection that is resistant to many traditional antibiotics.
Doctors used a central line in Traci’s neck to treat the infection after they found it had spread to the top of her heart. They feared it would damage her heart if left untreated.
A two-week hospital stay followed, and she was eventually able to have the expanders removed and her permanent breast implants placed.
Two months later, she noticed that her right implant had migrated under her armpit. She was devastated and in shock after a surgical consultation revealed there was nothing they could do for her.
Twelve months passed, but luckily for Traci, she was able to find a great surgeon who repaired the implant with two more surgeries.
Finding inspiration between the challenges
Until you or a loved one experiences cancer, it’s hard to quantify how difficult it is to navigate a breast cancer diagnosis. Simply put, it wasn’t easy for Traci.
“I was not always positive. There were days when I just cried and didn’t want to get out of bed,” she says.
Support is key, and Traci had an army of people in her corner led by her three children – Ciara, Hannah and Joshua.
In her most challenging days, her children inspired her. She knew they needed her, and her role as a mother helped her through the dark times. Traci was especially inspired by her oldest child, Ciara.
“She really took up the challenge and took care of me. She was a college student in Oklahoma City at the time,” Traci says. “She drove me around when needed, lifted me off the floor when I fainted from exaggeration, and helped take care of her siblings when I didn’t have the strength to do so.”
In addition to her family, Traci took advantage of the free counseling offered by the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute. She also found a therapist to manage her feelings and emotions during and after her treatment.
Daily prayer also helped. She prayed for peace, wisdom, and guidance.
“God gave me this peace that cannot be explained. It was a real gift,” says Traci.
Advice to other breast cancer patients
At the time of her diagnosis in 2013, Traci admittedly knew nothing about breast cancer. In retrospect, she wishes she had a better understanding of community resources, such as financial aid and counseling for cancer patients.
Traci had a great team at INTEGRIS Health and was fortunate enough to receive guidance from the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute. But Traci wasn’t quite aware of other resources she could have used, most notably the Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center. This information center provides patients with nutritional advice, spiritual support, relaxation techniques, turban and wig fitting, transportation coordination and much more.
“Ask questions if you don’t understand what your providers are saying. Let people help you,” Traci advises fellow cancer patients. “Find out what resources are available to you and your family, and use the resources you need. Listen to your body – if you feel like you need to rest, rest! Live and don’t let cancer or treatment take that away from you.”
She also emphasized to focus on life and not let cancer consume you, no matter how hard that is. Traci had 10 surgeries over a seven-year period. She finally felt like she had her life back five years ago. She went back to the gym, reconnected with old friends and cherished the time given to her.
“I only have one life on this earth and I intend to make a difference with it, even if it just means being kind to others every day,” she says.
A breast cancer diagnosis is frightening for both patients and their families. Our goal at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute is to guide you on your journey, from initial diagnosis to remission. Visit our breast health page to learn more about the services we offer or contact us today to schedule a screening.
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