Inner Strength

November 29, 2018

Jackson woman battles cancer diagnosis with a team of experts — and a positive attitude.

By Brianna McCabe

An agonizing, burning pain in her left breast plagued Billie Klecko, then 37, for weeks as she breastfed her baby girl. “I felt like I had a hot coal under my skin,” she recalls. Frightened, but not discouraged, the Jackson resident decided to be proactive and discuss the symptoms with her primary care doctor — a week after her daughter’s first birthday in January 2017.

After closer examination, Billie’s doctor advised she get a mammogram.

THE DIAGNOSIS

Her mammogram results were abnormal enough to require a follow-up ultrasound. Two days later, Billie found herself undergoing further examination with a biopsy. “The rush of these tests spoke to me about the severity of the situation,” says Billie. “But I made a promise to myself and my family to fight whatever was ahead and stay positive.”

Her tests revealed Billie’s diagnosis of stage 2 breast cancer.

Billie turned to her family for recommendations on next steps. Her father-in-law, Joe Klecko of the New York Jets, spoke to the team’s doctor, who highly recommended the care of Leslie Montgomery, M.D., chief of the Division of Breast Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center.

TAILORING THE TREATMENT

A staging evaluation by Dr. Montgomery identified lymph node involvement in her armpit. Dr. Montgomery then collaborated with Donna McNamara, M.D., co-chief of Gynecologic Oncology at John Theurer Cancer Center, part of Hackensack University Medical Center. “When it comes to treating breast cancer, it’s always a question of, ‘Do we do surgery or chemotherapy first?’ This is especially true if there is involvement of a larger tumor or lymph node,” says Dr. Montgomery.

Both Dr. Montgomery and Dr. McNamara agreed that an aggressive chemotherapy and targeted therapy before surgery would optimize Billie’s care and overall outcome.

In early February, Billie began her chemotherapy treatments. For the first 12 weeks, she underwent chemotherapy once a week, and then received her last four treatments on a biweekly basis.

“Despite what she was — and still is — going through, Billie simply radiates joy,” reflects Dr. McNamara. “Those seated next to her in the infusion suite benefited from her positive attitude. You’d see this young woman undergoing aggressive chemotherapy with a huge smile on her face. It is incredibly inspiring.”

COORDINATED CARE

Following her last dose of chemotherapy on June 28, Billie met with Kari Colen, M.D., a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Hackensack, to discuss reconstructive options prior to surgery. Billie and Dr. Colen arranged to proceed with a deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flap, a procedure that takes fat and skin from the patient’s stomach area to create a natural breast reconstruction postmastectomy and radiation.

Dr. Montgomery performed the mastectomy on August 1, followed by Dr. Colen’s insertion of a tissue expander, a temporary balloon placed under the skin to allow for stretching.

“Billie trusts that the doctors working to take care of her really want her to do well and have the best outcomes,” says Dr. Colen. “When you have a patient who trusts your goals, the relationship with the patient builds from there.”

Billie was introduced to Nathan Kaufman, M.D., FACRO, medical director of Radiation and Oncology at Ocean Medical Center, in October so she could begin six and a half weeks of radiation treatments closer to home. “The goal was to reduce the risk of recurrence and to sterilize the area so it can never be a source of the spread of cancer cells again while maintaining excellent cosmetic results,” says Dr. Kaufman.

AN OPTIMISTIC PLAN

“You hear the word ‘cancer’ and you think it’s a death sentence. You think it’s over,” says Billie. “But the plans and treatment options for health care have been revolutionized.”

Billie’s latest scans have revealed that there are no cancer cells. Billie is optimistic that with her current five-year plan, which includes receiving hormone-reducing shots every four weeks with Dr. McNamara, she will embrace the title survivor.

Billie Klecko credits her family for helping her recover from breast cancer. While Billie recuperated and her husband, Michael, worked, her family took care of their daughter, Reilly, now 2.