Breast Cancer Patients Draw Strength From Faith, Family and 'Fit' Attitude|
ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s aggressive and sometimes deadly. At Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, Yvonne Coble and Vititia Peoples are battling triple-negative breast cancer, despite the odds pitted against them. Both in their early 50s, they credit their successful fight against cancer to inner and outer strength: a strong religious faith, a strong family unit, and a strong team of doctors and nurses.
“I found out by accident that I had breast cancer,” said Coble, 52. Last New Year’s Eve, she underwent triple bypass surgery. As she fought cardiac disease, even suffering from a heart attack this past May, Coble received a chest CT scan. That’s when something out of the ordinary could be seen in her left breast. “They saw a small lump and wanted to do a biopsy.”
Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“An aggressive cancer calls for an aggressive treatment,” said Dr. Kory Jones, medical director of the breast program Texas Health Arlington Memorial and an oncology breast surgeon on the hospital’s medical staff. Jones performed a lumpectomy, removed several of Coble’s lymph nodes and began immediate chemotherapy.
According to Jones, it’s a difficult diagnosis for anyone to accept, let alone understand. With triple-negative breast cancer, estrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptor proteins are not present in the cancerous tumor, which makes it difficult for the tumor to respond well to targeted breast cancer drugs.
“This specific type of cancer produces inflammatory-type hormones that unfortunately stimulate the growth of cancer cells, which is why chemotherapy before or immediately after surgery remains the standard treatment,” Jones said. Patients like Coble are inspiring to others, Jones said.
“Everyone takes the news differently, but Yvonne looked at it like, ‘I survived a heart attack, so what do I need to do to survive cancer?’ She credited her cardiac episodes for saving her life,” Jones said.
But that strength wasn’t immediate.
“Going through two major diagnoses was almost impossible,” Coble said. Along with the hair loss, she had to quit her job. “It has impacted my life emotionally and physically. But I got through my heart attack, and I will get through this.”
Like Coble, Peoples’ life changed suddenly and drastically. The 51-year-old was performing her self-breast exam a few months ago, but unlike Coble, she did feel a lump in her breast.
Nervously, she asked a co-worker if the lump was evident. “I didn’t get the answer I was hoping for, so I called my doctor to get it checked out,” Peoples said. A mammogram and biopsy were immediately performed on her right breast.
Peoples vividly remembers the day she met with her doctor to go over her test results. A supporter of breast cancer research even before her diagnosis, Peoples was wearing a pink breast cancer awareness shirt when her doctor delivered the life-altering news.
“Instead of crying when I heard the news, I was smiling,” she said. “That shocked my doctor, but I refuse to feel sorry for myself. I’m a fighter, and that’s what I’m doing with this cancer.”
Peoples had a lumpectomy performed in early April, but she soon received what she described as more shocking news. “I was told I had to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I thought I was cancer-free after the lump was removed,” Peoples said.
Jones wasn’t surprised by Peoples' reaction.
“It’s one of the more difficult types of breast cancers to treat,” she said. Multiple and immediate treatments are essential when addressing triple-negative breast cancer. According to Jones, even for early-stage disease, chemotherapy is recommended because it lowers the risk of reoccurrence.
Dr. Alfred DiStefano said it is critical that doctors emphasize to their patients the importance of addressing breast cancer, especially triple negative, sooner rather than later.
A medical oncologist, DiStefano has been on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial for more than 30 years. “I explain what triple negative is, what the options are, along with the side effects, so we can get the ball rolling in the right direction.”
Standard treatment for triple-negative breast cancer includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy and non-HER2 targeted therapy. Although he is pleased with the current trend, DiStefano thinks there is room for advancements in breast cancer treatment.
“Aggressive doses of adriamycin and taxanes, what we refer to as dose-dense chemotherapy, is producing positive results for treating triple-negative breast cancer,” DiStefano said. Adriamycin is an anti-tumor drug and taxanes block cell growth by stopping the division of cells. “Breast cancer is still addressed on a case-by-case basis, but advancements in treatment options are helping save more lives.”
Despite the advancements in treatment, Peoples admits that cancer is more than a physical battle. It can very well take an emotional toll on a person as well.
“For me, a fit mind is key,” she said. “I always tell myself, ‘You’re not sick, just not as well as you used to be.’” She remembers the first day her hair began falling out during her chemo treatments, along with the love and support from her family. “I sent photos to my family — one with me wearing a wig and one with me and my bald head — they voted on the bald look for me.”
Coble made the decision to go bald even before beginning chemotherapy. She went to the barber shop and asked them to cut off all of her hair, which was nearly half-way down her back. “By cutting my hair, I’m taking control of the situation, not the other way around.”
When it comes to a strong family unit, Coble is grateful. Her sisters, nieces and nephews all take turns driving her to and from doctor’s appointments and cancer treatments.
Coble said her battle with cancer has been an educational experience for her entire family. “When people hear cancer, they are quick to put you in the grave, because they don’t understand. I have knowledgeable doctors and nurses, but I still took the time to do my own research.”
But Coble shared her health issues with strangers, too. “I told my story through testimonies at my church. I used to hide my scars, but then I realized I’m going through this for a reason. My situation can possibly help somebody else.”
Peoples is also thankful for her religious faith. During her treatments, she listens to Gospel music. She describes it as comforting and uplifting. “We hear it all the time, but I know for a fact that God will not give you more than you can handle.”
As Coble continues to battle breast cancer, she is also using a beneficial resource at Texas Health Arlington Memorial. “We take an individual on a journey from diagnosis to treatment,” said Jane McNelis, R.N., the hospital’s oncology nurse navigator.
“She’s wonderful,” Coble said. “She explained medical terminology to me, even making sure I got in contact with the right physicians and received information about additional resources.” As a nurse navigator, McNelis has direct contact with physicians on the medical staff, along with access to financial assistance options and cancer support programs. “A lot of women don’t know all of the assistance that is immediately available to them,” she said. “I want them to know that they are not battling cancer by themselves.”
And Coble appreciates McNelis’ approach to addressing the health care needs of others. Once she completes her cancer treatments, Coble plans to go back to work full time, helping others. “I want to help people going through what I’m going through. I’m going to share my story and let them know it’s going to be alright.”
About Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital
Doctors on the medical staff practice independently and are not employees or agents of the hospital.