Samantha's Cancer Journey
Samantha, then age 46 from Cookeville, TN, discovered a lump in her breast during Easter weekend 2012.
“My life was so busy with a full-time job, a hard-working husband, and 3 kids—2 in college and 1 in third grade. I noticed the lump one morning after just waking up – a few restless days and nights later, my worst fears were confirmed – I had triple-negative breast cancer,” said Samantha.
At the time, Samantha was working at the cancer center of her local hospital.
“The irony was not lost on me. I had spent years comforting patients after they received life-altering diagnoses. Now, my life had been altered.”
Samantha underwent surgery to remove the lump and fortunately, the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes. As a precaution, her oncologist suggested chemotherapy followed by radiation to ensure her body was free of cancer.
“While receiving treatments, I tried to carry on as normally as possible. I continued working full-time, even when it felt impossible to get out of bed in the morning. I never missed a day of work apart from receiving a treatment.”
Nearly a year after first discovering the lump, Samantha completed her treatments and received a clean bill of health. Shortly after, she started researching maintenance drugs and clinical trials that could act as a supplement to keep her cancer-free, but there was nothing for triple-negative breast cancer.
“One year passed with clear CT scans, then another and another. I felt great, and life was good. Then, there was pain. My fourth year into remission, I started having left-sided weakness and sharp stomach pain. My doctor dismissed my concerns, but my intuition screamed for a second opinion.”
Samantha insisted on a CT scan, which revealed a mass on her left adrenal gland, and tumors throughout her abdominal area. The biopsy results showed that the triple-negative breast cancer had returned and metastasized to other parts of her body.
“We received the news two weeks before Christmas 2015. We were devastated, but I was well aware of how far research had advanced during my remission. I was consumed with a longing for hope, while struggling with the knowledge that this breast cancer would be hard to beat.”
“My husband and kids were not going to let me take this news lying down. Giving up was not an option. We were ready to fight—we just needed to know how.”
Samantha’s new oncologist referred her to a cutting-edge clinical trial at Sarah Cannon Research Institute at Tennessee Oncology in Nashville, Tennessee. The study was spearheaded by Erika Hamilton, MD, Director of the Breast Cancer and Gynecologic Cancer Research Program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute, who would become her third oncologist.
“I met with Dr. Hamilton shortly after the new year. She explained that this clinical trial would be different, because we were going to treat cancer like a manageable disease. The goal was to keep my lifestyle the same regardless of treatment. We discussed everything from expectations to limitations. After leaving Sarah Cannon, I felt proactive in the face of cancer for the first time. Even though my cancer had come back, I wasn’t finished.”
Samantha began her treatments in early February 2016, which consisted of standard chemotherapy and new, innovative, immunotherapy. The chemotherapy caused typical side effects, from hair loss to nausea, but it manageable and Samantha continued to work full time.
After only eight weeks on the clinical trial, Samantha’s first CT scan revealed that every tumor in her abdomen had shrunk, including the one on her adrenal gland.
“We were floored, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since. With every round of treatment and CT scans, my tumors have continued to shrink. This clinical trial gave me my life back. To anyone with a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis who is reading this story, my advice is: do your research, surround yourself with doctors who are willing to listen, and trust your body.”