Loving Life After Breast Cancer
Kat Rains of San Francisco was 39 years old and 28 weeks pregnant with her second child when she woke up one February morning and noticed a massive lump on her breast. Initially, her doctors thought it was mastitis, but when it didn’t resolve, more testing showed that Kat had triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form that’s difficult to treat. What happened next seemed like a whirlwind.
Because the tumor was stage 2—meaning that it was growing, but still contained in the breast and nearby lymph nodes—Kat’s doctors told her that she had to undergo chemotherapy immediately, but she couldn’t do it while she was still pregnant.
Back to top
Mothering the Mother
"I was shocked," says Kat, who didn’t have a family history of early breast cancer or any other risk factors. "My new baby and older son Nash were going to need both their parents, and for them to have a mommy, I needed to start chemo right away."
In late March 2012 at 32 weeks pregnant, Kat was induced at California Pacific Medical Center and gave birth to a baby girl whom she and her husband Tom named Alice. “When I got wheeled into the NICU to see my daughter, I was scared to death,” she recalls. “And the first thing Alice’s neonatologist said to me was, ‘Kat, I’m a triple negative breast cancer survivor—13 years cancer-free’, and I started crying.” That empathetic care is what got Kat through what was to be one of the most challenging and uplifting times of her life.
Back to top
Finding Beauty in Your Scars
At about the same time 50 miles north in Sebastopol, 62-year-old Joyce Sumigawa was pruning her garden when she accidentally hit her hedge, pinched her breast, and noticed a small lump. When it wouldn’t go away after several months, her sister Mary, a breast cancer survivor, encouraged her to go to the doctor. Joyce turned to Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, where Breast Oncology Surgeon Elizabeth Peralta, M.D., FACS, managed her care.
After a biopsy showed that Joyce had stage 2 breast cancer, Dr. Peralta told her she would need a lumpectomy. “I didn’t want to believe it. I was in a daze, and here I was thinking that I was going to be lopsided,” Joyce recalls with a chuckle. “But Dr. Peralta made sure I didn’t worry about anything. When I came out of surgery—I’m not ashamed to say it—the work was so well done, really beautiful. I didn’t suffer any pain, and Dr. Peralta was right there with me the whole time.”
Back to top
Back to Life
For Kat, four months of chemotherapy were followed by a bilateral mastectomy performed by Breast Oncology Surgeon Amara Malik, M.D., and six weeks of radiation. Then, this past May, Kat underwent reconstruction surgery, making her feel beautiful and whole again.
She is now cancer-free, feeling great, and back at work, both as a mother and as a media sales manager. “I’m spending time with my family that a year ago I didn’t know I was going to have,” she says. “I’ve learned so many amazing lessons that made me a better person. I’m grateful that I can live the next 50 years with a whole new appreciation for life.”
After chemotherapy and radiation, Joyce is also cancer-free and back to gardening and running her family’s plant store, Sumigawa Nursery, in Cotati.
Both women remain grateful to the Sutter Health caregivers who saved their lives. “I’ll never forget the staff there,” says Joyce. “They were so good to me.” “Dr. Malik was phenomenal,” Kat beams. “She went above and beyond what I would ever expect from a doctor, even calling after hours to check on me. I felt like I was the starting center on the court, and my doctors were the best team I could have to get me through this. I’m forever indebted to them.”
Back to top
Your Breast Health Questions Answered
More than 230,000 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the U.S. each year, but because of early detection and medical advancement, the disease is more treatable than ever. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Amara Malik, M.D., and Elizabeth Peralta, M.D., FACS, breast oncology surgeons at Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation (SPMF), answer some common questions about breast health.
When should I start getting mammograms?
There’s been some controversy about when to start screening because younger women have an increased risk of false positives. But mammograms have been shown to reduce mortality in both younger and older women. The American Cancer Society recommends that most women begin screening at age 40. Women who are higher risk may need to screen younger.
How often should I get a mammogram?
Annual mammograms are recommended starting at age 40. If doctors find an abnormality in a mammogram, it may require more frequent follow-up.
What are risk factors for breast cancer?
They include obesity, age (over 55), a history or family history of breast cancer, drinking two to five alcoholic drinks a day, having no children or one’s first child after age 30, recent use of high-dose oral contraceptives or combined hormone therapy, and finally race. Caucasian women have a higher risk for breast cancer, while African-American women tend to develop more aggressive cancers.
What about the BRCA gene?
Actress Angelina Jolie’s recent preventive mastectomy brought a lot of media attention to the BRCA gene. Only about one in 400 people carry the gene, but it can increase your breast cancer risk to 80 percent. If you’re of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry or have a family history of male breast cancer or early breast or ovarian cancer, you might consider getting tested. If you test positive, you have several options, such as ovariectomy, which lowers breast cancer risk, preventive breast surgery, or doing regular MRI screenings, which can be combined with chemoprevention.
Should I do breast self-exams?
There’s some controversy surrounding breast self-exams because they increase the chances of women getting biopsies of benign tumors. Nonetheless, self-exams uncover a significant number of breast cancers. We recommend that you know your breasts. If you feel something that’s changed, like a nipple retracting, a new lump that’s firm and hard, or a bloody discharge, you should tell your doctor. It’s important for women to be proactive, yet not hyper-vigilant.
Where can I get breast health services?
Sutter Health offers comprehensive breast health centers in San Francisco and Santa Rosa. Both locations offer a number of multidisciplinary services, like nurse navigators and geneticists who can assess your risk and recommend and coordinate tests, free onsite psychologists, integrative therapies, nutritionists, and translation and post-surgery services.
If I’m diagnosed with cancer, what are my chances of survival?
While one in eight American women might get breast cancer, only one in 36 will die from it. According to the American Cancer Society, 100 percent of women with Stage 1 breast cancer live at least five years, compared to women without cancer, and many remain cancer-free for good.
BREAST HEALTH SERVICES
415-600-6474 (Laurel Heights location)
415-641-3360 (Mission location)
Back to top