Breast Cancer Survivor Finds Light in a Dark Place

October 29, 2019

It all started with a cough that wouldn’t go away.

In December 2017, Lakehurst, New Jersey, resident Maybelline Hicks went to her primary care physician. Even though she had just recovered from a bad cold, she had a persistent cough. When the medicine her doctor prescribed didn’t offer her any relief, she was instructed to get an X-ray. “I told the physician assistant that I also had some pain in my back, and that seemed to concern him,” says Maybelline. When her primary care doctor asked her to come in to discuss the X-ray results, she was floored.

“He told me I had breast cancer,” Maybelline says. “I didn’t believe him. I told him that my mom didn’t die of breast cancer, and that I don’t smoke, I don’t drink or do drugs. And I had a mammogram in September.”

Her primary care doctor sent Maybelline for an ultrasound, after which she was referred to diagnostic radiologist Patrick O’Connor, D.O., at Ocean Medical Center for a needle biopsy. He confirmed the breast cancer diagnosis and informed Maybelline that it was aggressive and growing. She was advised to see a breast surgeon.

Maybelline dove into her research and turned up a video online where breast surgeon Yolanda Tammaro, M.D., gave an introduction to the multidisciplinary program at Ocean. “I really liked her personality,” recalls Maybelline, so she made an appointment.

Considering All Options

“Any time a patient comes to me with a breast cancer diagnosis, we have a very lengthy discussion regarding all the treatment options,” Dr. Tammaro says. “We told Maybelline—as we tell all patients—how the treatment we provide is multidisciplinary in nature. When she met with me, she knew that she would be meeting with multiple specialists including surgeons, a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, genetic counselor and pathologist.”

Dr. Tammaro, who is the director of breast surgery at Ocean and Southern Ocean Medical Center, informed Maybelline about surgical options. “She was an excellent candidate for breast conservation surgery—a lumpectomy—and we discussed the treatment that often follows,” she says. “We also discussed that, given her family history of prostate cancer, she should pursue genetic counseling and testing at Ocean, because sometimes prostate cancer and breast cancer can have a genetic link.”

Because Maybelline’s cancer was still localized within one breast, she elected to go forward with the minimally invasive procedure to remove the lesion and some nearby lymph nodes. A couple of weeks before the surgery, though, Dr. Tammaro used a relatively new device to help her locate the lump during the surgical procedure. She implanted a small, nonradioactive reflector within the lesion, and later, when surgery began, she used the probe of a small radar monitor to pinpoint the reflector.

“This is more convenient for people who are candidates for this surgery,” she says, “because previously, the morning of surgery, we would have to insert a thin wire into the lesion that would extend outside of the breast. Because this chip can be inserted up to 30 days prior to the procedure, it cuts down the time that the patient has to be inconvenienced for what can be an outpatient procedure.”

Dr. Tammaro, in consultation with radiation oncologist Doug Miller, M.D., from Jersey Shore University Medical Center, was able to recommend another technological advancement for Maybelline: a partial radiation delivery system.

Two weeks after the lumpectomy, Maybelline returned to Dr. Tammaro’s office so a balloon could be implanted in the space where the lesion had been. Tubes from the balloon are connected to a device in the radiation treatment suite.

“This delivers radiation from the inside out,” explains Dr. Tammaro. It has the advantage of being highly targeted, treating the areas of the breast that were adjacent to the lesion while sparing other healthy tissue.

“I went for treatments twice a day for five days,” Maybelline says of the sessions that lasted about eight to 10 minutes. Dr. Miller oversaw the accelerated radiation treatment, and Maybelline appreciated the level of care he displayed. “Every time, Dr. Miller was there to cheer me on,” she says. “That was so significant, because you are afraid and you feel like you’re in it all by yourself.”

That fear was understandable, but Maybelline didn’t dwell on it for long. “My husband was super supportive,” she says. “Cancer is an ugly disease, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”

Helping Others Find Light

Now that she is on the mend, she has channeled her energy and her background in fashion into helping other women who face breast cancer. She is working on a special design for a prettier bra that can accommodate the tubes that trail out of the balloon while it’s in place.

Dr. Tammaro admires Maybelline’s desire to help others. “Her optimism contributed to how well she did. Despite her diagnosis, it didn’t change her spirit or the kind of person she is. And now she really wants to help.”

For Maybelline, the admiration is mutual. “Dr. Tammaro is so skilled, and my whole team was very reassuring. I thank her for being a light in a dark place.”

Learn about our Breast Imaging and Breast Cancer program’s comprehensive services, including breast screening, surgery, treatment and support.

Dr. Tammaro debunks three common myths associated with breast cancer.

Dr. Tammaro practices in Brick and Manahawkin. To make an appointment, call 732-840-3339.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.