By Kayla Henard
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
To many people, the month of October means getting to sport a pink ribbon to work, watching NFL players decked out in the bubblegum color, or giving that extra dollar for cancer research in the checkout line at the grocery store.
But to Tricia Hill, Breast Cancer Awareness Month means much more.
The 43-year-old Linthicum resident was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer known as HER2-positive on Oct. 19, 2012 after she felt a lump on her breast.
“I was completely clueless and caught off guard,” Hill said in an interview. “There was no family history so I never gave it a second thought.”
After finding out about her illness, Hill said she gave herself the weekend alone to process the diagnosis and reality of having Stage III breast cancer.
“I let myself feel mad, frustrated, sad, and overall sorry for myself those three days,” Hill said.
On the following Sunday, Hill decided it was time to face the facts. She forced herself out of bed, looked in the mirror, and said to herself, “This is where I fight.”
She reached out to family members, friends, even coworkers and began accepting prayer and support, which she says would accompany her every step of her journey.
With a warfare mentality and many people rooting her on, Hill started six rounds of intense chemotherapy two weeks after her original diagnosis. It spanned five months until doctors at Mercy Hospital opted for a double mastectomy, a surgery to remove all breast tissue, in the beginning of April 2012.
Following the procedure, Hill began 33 rounds of radiation and nine rounds of Herceptin—a drug specified for treatment of HER2+– which she said was the toughest part.
“Radiation is a beast that takes everything out of you,” Hill said. “But the part I struggled the most with was losing my hair—that is something that took a toll on my mentality far worse than any chemicals did.”
Although bald and far weaker than normal, Hill remained positive and insisted to doctors the cancer would be gone once the final pathology report was read.
She was right.
“The doctor read the report to me and gave me the biggest hug,” Hill said. “All he could say was, ‘You were right.’”
Since her remission, Hill has undergone seven reconstructive surgeries on her breasts, needing one more. She will also have to take a preventative medication known as Tamoxifen for the next 10 years.
“My fight is never over,” Hill said.
According to Dr. Lillie Shockney, a professor of breast cancer and administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, there will be a total of 249,000 patients diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this calendar year alone.
Shockney is a survivor of breast cancer herself, beating the disease twice.
“Having breast cancer reframed my life,” Shockney said. “I became very focused on wanting to spend my time, 24/7, supporting newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, as well as raising awareness, and also supporting women with Stage IV breast cancer who will eventually lose their lives to this disease.”
Shockney had an oncology nursing background before she was diagnosed. Once she encountered the disease herself, she explains becoming in tune with the fear and uncertainty patients face.
“I wanted to ensure patients were empowered with information so that they could confidently participate in the decision making about their treatment options,” Shockney said.
Throughout her 30-year career researching breast cancer, Shockney said there have been more discoveries made in the last 10 years than there have been in the 30 years prior to that time frame.
“We are learning a lot about the physiology of this disease and that breast cancer isn’t one disease but closer to one thousand different types of cancers with breast cancer,” Shockney said. “This is why it has been so hard to find solutions and develop a cure along with prevention.”
However, Shockney is confident a cure is on the brink.
She said more targeted drugs have recently been developed and even more on the way in the next few years. She said this will provide longer survival for those with metastatic disease as well as more patients who will become long term survivors and live out a normal life.
“I think that my granddaughter, who turned 8 last week, will be the generation to say that she doesn’t have to worry about breast cancer because there will be a vaccine for prevention,” Shockney said. “I suspect she will be in her 30s or 40s when this happens but it is within sight.”
Shockney praises organizations such as Susan G. Komen, which raise funds and awareness for breast cancer and credits them as being a huge player in the grant funding for laboratory research focused on putting an end to this disease.
According to Kim Schmulowitz, the communications and marketing director of Susan G. Komen Maryland, 75 percent of net funds go to local breast health programs.
These programs provide direct and supportive services such as free mammograms, clinical breast exams and diagnostic tests for uninsured or underinsured women. They also provide meals, transportation and co-pay assistance for women undergoing treatment as well as programs for mentoring patients and survivors.
She said 25 percent of net funds are pooled with other Komen affiliates to fund national research. Komen is the largest non-profit contributor to breast cancer research outside of the federal government. Schmulowitz notes there are currently seven Komen-funded research programs in Maryland for a total of $12.2 million.
“Komen Maryland raised $2.035 million total last year,” Schmulowitz said. “The Race for the Cure in Hunt Valley raised $1.2 million alone last year.”
This year, the race will be held on Sunday and is expected to surpass last year’s earnings.
In addition to the annual Race for the Cure, Komen Maryland held the Anne Arundel County Lifeline 100 on Oct. 16 at Kinder Farm Park.
Schmulowitz notes that several of the organizations in the Baltimore area offer free or discounted mammograms.
Women who are 40 or older and need a mammogram should start by calling their local health department for a referral to the state Breast and Cervical Cancer screening program. Women below 40 can call Komen Maryland for a referral to one of its funded programs at 410-938-8990.
“Give yourself a chance at survival,” Hill said. “Quality of life is all based on perception and having a positive state of mind in addition to a solid support group can overcome any cancer.”