Finishing Her War Against Breast Cancer

July 8, 2020

Rachel Perez is chronicling her battle with breast cancer on Facebook in a creative way: She’s vowed to wear a different pair of patterned leggings to each round of radiation (there will be 34 in total).

On May 29—the day of her second round—she posted a photo of her star-print leggings with the caption, “I am the star of my own story!” For the next round, it was camouflage leggings with a caption that sums up her journey to date: “Cancer may have started this war, but I am going to finish it!”

Rachel, age 48, was diagnosed with stage 3 triple negative breast cancer, an uncommon and aggressive form of the disease, in October 2019. Since then, it’s been her can-do attitude and positivity—paired with a multi-pronged treatment plan that includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation—that’s giving her hope for her future.

The Journey Begins

Rachel’s breast cancer journey began in September 2019 when she started experiencing pain in her breast. “I could feel a large lump in my breast and it was starting to hurt so much that it felt like electrical shocks going through me,” she says.

One day while at work, the pain became so overwhelming that it was impacting her ability to do her job. “I went into my lieutenant’s office and I said, ‘I need to go to the doctor,’” recalls Rachel, who works as a police dispatcher for the Berkeley Township Police Department.

She went straight to the Emergency Department at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, where Renuka Pillai, D.O., performed an ultrasound and blood work, and quickly referred Rachel to Denise Johnson Miller, M.D., FACS, medical director of breast surgical oncology at Jersey Shore.

Dr. Johnson Miller met with Rachel just days later. “Based on the breast ultrasound and clinical exam, we knew Rachel’s tumor was very, very large,” Dr. Johnson Miller says. “So we did an incisional biopsy to see how extensive her disease was.”

The biopsy confirmed the unwelcome news of triple negative breast cancer. “Unfortunately, there are not any established targeted therapies available to stop or decrease the growth of triple negative breast cancer,” says Dr. Johnson Miller.

Rachel recalls the moments after hearing the news. “Everything moves very fast when you’re told you have cancer. It’s like in the ‘Peanuts’ cartoons where the teacher is talking, but you can’t process anything,” she says. “But Dr. Johnson Miller reassured me that they’ve seen good responses to a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.”

On November 1, Rachel began the first of nearly five months of chemotherapy. “The goal of the chemotherapy before surgery was to reduce the size of her tumor so that she hopefully could have a less-invasive operation,” says Michael Levitt, M.D., FACP, hematologist and medical oncologist who provided Rachel’s chemotherapy.

“Before Rachel started chemotherapy, I reviewed with her the common side effects associated with the drugs she would receive, such as hair loss, fatigue and low blood counts, among others,” Dr. Levitt says. “But I reassured her that she has a team approach to managing her care, and whether it be nights or weekends, someone is always available to address any concerns she has.”

Other reassurances were Jamie Angeline, breast nurse navigator, who helps with communication between clinical teams and complex-case patients like Rachel, and Brianna Spahn, breast surgery physician assistant, who answered Rachel’s questions regarding surgery, plan of care, wound care and other topics.

Cancer and COVID-19

On March 12, Rachel completed her final round of chemotherapy. “My whole family was with me at HOPE Tower to ring the bell to celebrate the end of my chemo,” she says.

By the next day, COVID-19 changed everything. On March 13, Hackensack Meridian Health began restricting visitors to all of its hospitals in order to keep patients and team members safe amidst the pandemic.

The health network quickly developed extensive procedures to ensure the safety of patients and team members, including:

  • Separate areas for treating COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients
  • Specially designated entrances for certain procedures and services
  • Monitoring temperatures of all patients, team members, visitors and doctors
  • Rigorous cleaning and sanitizing procedures, including UV light cleaning and fogging
  • COVID-19 testing of all patients staying at our hospitals
  • Providing masks to patients, visitors, team members and doctors
  • Ensuring team members and doctors have appropriate personal protective equipment
  • Social-distancing practices throughout our facilities
  • Practicing tried-and-true best practices for infection prevention, including rigorous hand hygiene

All of these measures comforted Rachel as she prepared for the next step in her treatment plan: surgery. “With everything going on with COVID-19, I feel 100 percent confident coming to HOPE Tower,” Rachel says, “I would never stop my cancer care here. Everyone is taking an incredible amount of protective measures to make sure everyone is comfortable and safe.”

Fortunately, Rachel responded very well to chemotherapy, after which her tumor was no longer visible on mammogram or MRI. “Additionally, her breast was now normal in size and shape with no palpable masses or lymph nodes,” Dr. Johnson Miller says. “With that information, we knew we could attempt breast conservation with surgery rather than removing her entire breast.”

Dr. Johnson Miller performed a lumpectomy on April 14, removing eight lymph nodes. Less than a month later, Rachel met with the medical director of Radiation Oncology, Douglas Miller, M.D. “We did not conduct a telemedicine consult because Rachel had an open wound that needed to be addressed in my office with wound care,” Dr. Miller says.

On May 28, Rachel began the seven weeks of radiation—and she’s planned out the fun leggings that will keep her spirits up along the way.

‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’

Today, Rachel is feeling much better than she did during the first six months of treatment. She’s working to get stronger and stay energized by planting herbs and vegetables in her garden and taking walks outside.

Her cancer journey isn’t over—after radiation, she’ll take multiple rounds of oral chemotherapy and continue follow-up with radiation. “We’ll continue to assess Rachel three to four weeks after treatment ends and every six months to a year after that,” Dr. Miller says. “She will need mammograms and may even need further chemo at some point given her aggressive breast disease.”

Rachel remains hopeful and grateful. “There is hope and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “The level of care that I have received has been exceptional. I’ve never known doctors and nurses to be so compassionate and understanding.”

She has a heartfelt message for any woman who feels a lump or suspects a health issue— “Don’t wait. Find your strength from deep down and get it checked out. I was afraid, but my doctors taught me that I don’t have to be afraid.”

Add Dr. Levitt, “Cancer doesn’t wait. Don’t be afraid to get the treatment you need. We are taking strict precautions to protect all of our patients, especially our most vulnerable ones.”

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