Christina McDonald didn’t let a pandemic keep her from life-saving preventative care.
In her mid-20s, while caring for her mother who was battling breast cancer, Christina McDonald made a vow to always prioritize her own breast health. Years later, it’s a promise she has kept, even with having a busy career, a family, and experiencing a pandemic.
It’s a mindset that might have just saved her life.
“The thought of how close it came, of having cancer spread throughout my body, is frightening,” Christina says. “Preventative care is incredibly important.”
While the world shut down in response to COVID-19, Christina, a resident of Rockwall, stayed as up-to-date as possible on her care. When her doctor’s office was able to see patients again, she went for her annual exam and also scheduled her mammogram, a diagnostic test she has undergone since she was in her 30s.
A week after she turned 42, Christina was told by the radiologist who read her mammogram that there was a concerning spot on the right side. Christina was asked to return for another mammogram, and, based on those findings, her doctor recommended a stereotactic biopsy. Wasting no time, Christina scheduled the biopsy for the following week and learned then that the spot in question was a Stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a cancer positioned next to her chest wall.
Cancer: it is the word she never wanted to hear.
“I panicked and yet subconsciously I knew it was cancer, so I wasn’t completely shocked. After taking care of my mom, the fear lived in me,” Christina says. “Sadly, I knew I was going to get the diagnosis, too, one day.”
DCIS is a non-invasive cancer where abnormal cells are found in the lining of the breast milk duct. Christina’s mass was described as Stage 0 breast cancer, where the atypical cells have not yet spread outside of the ducts and into the surrounding breast tissue. While DCIS is a very early cancer that is highly treatable, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, it can easily spread into the surrounding breast tissue if left untreated or undetected.
Helping her mom through a battle with cancer had steeled Christina for her own, and understanding that the same enemy — cancer — was growing within her own body, a new warrior spirit emerged within Christina, ready to fight.
“At that moment, I became the patient. My problem was cancer and I needed to fix it. My mind immediately went to, ‘I need to find the best surgeon and get this out of me,’” she says. After interviewing three surgeons who specialize in breast surgical oncology, Christina chose to work with Archana Ganaraj, M.D., a physician on the medical staff of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
“They always say to get a second opinion and I am so glad I got three opinions,” Christina says. “It’s important to find the right doctor to work with you.
“She put me at ease and knowing I would need to be followed by a breast surgeon the rest of my life, I knew she was the one; she is so smart and compassionate, and very coordinated in the care she provides.”
Dr. Ganaraj’s office scheduled Christina’s genetic screening before she had even left her first appointment, and an MRI was also planned for that same week. “It was coordinated care, and that’s what a patient wants,” Christina emphasizes.
‘Cancer Can’t Survive Me’
With a team in place to support her, Christina now faced a big decision: how to treat her condition. All three physicians recommended either a lumpectomy with radiation or a mastectomy to treat the cancer growing inside of her.
Also growing inside Christina was her will to do everything she could to fight the disease. She thought of her mother’s battle through cancer and about her own two young children. “If I would have done a lumpectomy, I would have had to do the radiation. I didn’t want to do that and then possibly be in the same situation 5 or 10 years from now. I always told myself when I was my mom’s caretaker that I would just have a double mastectomy and reconstruction.”
Christina chose Jeffery K. Krueger, M.D., a plastic surgeon and physician on the medical staff of Texas Health Dallas, to perform her mastectomy and reconstruction. “He went through the different options for reconstruction, and asked about my expectations and detailed the expected outcomes. He was very sympathetic for the diagnosis I had received, especially with me being so young. I decided to go with him,” Christina says, satisfied with her decision.
Christina underwent surgery for a double mastectomy on November 23, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic but not a moment too soon. Pathology performed on the cancer removed from Christina’s body showed that her mass was 3.8 cm and a grade 3, the highest grade. There was already necrosis where the cancerous mass had been eating away at Christina’s healthy tissue. If Christina had not chosen the double mastectomy, she would have to be on hormone-reducing medication to prevent cancer in both breasts. This news not only affirmed Christina’s feeling that she had made the best decision for her own health, but also gave the chilling realization that waiting even a few months could have created immensely different circumstances for her.
“For it being at that stage, it was very close to spreading throughout my body,” Christina says. “It won’t always stay DCIS; it would have metastasized. I was lucky.”
Now cancer-free, Christina understands that the fight against the virus that causes COVID-19 is heavy on everyone’s mind. She implores those around her, however, to not let that be a distraction in keeping them from regular preventative care such as colonoscopies, mammograms or other diagnostic tests.
“Thinking that it’s just going got hold off one more year – that would not have worked for me,” Christina says firmly. “Who knew that there was a stage 0, that you can catch it that early? I feel very blessed.”
“Honestly, if everyone were to come in and get their screening annually, we would catch it early and save more lives,” Dr. Ganaraj says, driving home the importance of preventative care.
As she continues her recovery, Christina has returned to her active lifestyle, playing with her children and husband, working full time, and strengthening her body through regular workouts. Her goal is to stay strong in all ways possible.
“I feel like I’ve been in battle, both mentally and physically, even now,” Christina explains.
“People tell me, ‘You’re a survivor.’ I let them know I consider myself a warrior – everyone battling cancer is. Cancer can’t survive me.”
To schedule your mammogram, please click here for a Texas Health breast center near you.