Fighting Breast Cancer to Win

October 26, 2020

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the surge of COVID-19, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

Chereese McMillan keeps a journal filled with notes. It is a meticulously documented record of the past year of her life, marked by appointments, procedures, medications and milestones. The entry dated August 13, 2019, reads, “Today is the day I found out I had breast cancer.”

In June 2019, Chereese had a routine mammogram. A subsequent ultrasound revealed a suspicious mass, so she was referred to a breast surgeon for a diagnostic biopsy. After the procedure, she tried to put what might or might not be out of her mind until the results came back.

On August 13, Chereese was sitting in her East Orange, New Jersey, living room watching the birds outside her window when the surgeon called her with the news.

“The word ‘cancer’ does something to you,” Chereese recalls, thinking back to the moment she learned that she had stage 2B triple-negative breast cancer and how it brought her to tears. Triple-negative breast cancer tends to grow quicker, spread faster and have more limited treatment options. She thought, “This is for real.”

Just as quickly as the wave of emotion swept over her, Chereese shifted her perspective. She asked herself: “‘You were just sitting here so happy. Do you really feel any different than before you heard those words?’ I went in with the thought that I love a good fight. No matter what’s going to happen, I’m fighting to win.”

Plan of Attack

The first step in Chereese’s treatment was to surgically remove as much of the cancer as possible through a lumpectomy. She was grateful that the surgery would just remove the cancerous mass and preserve her breast tissue. She had her lumpectomy on September 13, 2019, at Mountainside Medical Center.

Chemotherapy was her next line of defense. In November, Chereese began a weekly chemotherapy regimen under the care of Stephen Abo, D.O., a medical oncologist at Mountainside. Although she experienced some nausea after the first treatment, overall, she says it wasn’t too bad.

About halfway through her chemotherapy, however, Chereese had what she describes as the worst day ever. She had begun an experimental drug that Dr. Abo hoped would improve her long-term prognosis. The treatment made her sick for hours, but with some adjustment, she was able to finish the course without much trouble.

“Chereese is such an upbeat person. She was so determined to fight her cancer that nothing was going to slow her down,” Dr. Abo says.

Chereese scheduled her treatments on Fridays, so she could have the weekend to recover before going back to work each Monday at Isaiah House, a shelter where she works with people from all walks of life who, she says, have shaped her perspective on life. “The energy you put out is the energy you receive,” Chereese says. “I told cancer I’m not even participating or indulging in its negativity.”

Family was at the heart of her motivation to fight hard. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, one of her daughters announced she was pregnant. Throughout her treatment, members of her family accompanied her to appointments, some even traveling from New York.

After chemotherapy, Chereese proceeded to radiation therapy. Because the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, she was at greater risk of it spreading further throughout her body.

“Cancer spreads when cells start to forget what they’re supposed to do and find their way out of the place where they started,” says Brett Lewis, M.D., Ph.D., Chereese’s radiation oncologist at Mountainside. “In a perfectly healthy person, lymph flows all around the body. Breast cancer cells will ride the wave of lymph fluid.”

Dr. Lewis administered radiation therapy to help prevent the cancer’s recurrence. “We treat the area where we think patients are at the highest risk for recurrence, so we treated Chereese’s breast and lymph nodes to reduce the risk of cancer coming back. Though there are no guarantees, radiation greatly reduces the chance of recurrence,” Dr. Lewis says.

A Blessing or a Lesson

Now that Chereese has finished radiation, she will maintain a surveillance schedule with Drs. Abo and Lewis. Reflecting on the past year, she is full of praise for the team that helped her on this journey. “All of the nurses and team members in infusion were great,” she says. “I try to remember every one of their names because they made me feel so special.”

Chereese got to meet her new grandson, Kaden, and she takes pictures of him every chance she gets. She is living each day of survivorship with the same positive outlook she had during treatment. “I try to live every day with this thought alone: Every day is either going to be a blessing or a lesson, and either way, I’m good.”

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