A Seasoned Educator Receives a Crash Course in Breast Cancer

Susan Walls will never forget the phone call that changed her life. She was in her car, having just left the elementary school in Prince George's County where she worked as a music educator.

The call was from Dr. Pamela Wright, medical director of the Suburban Hospital Breast Center and the breast surgeon who had performed a biopsy on Susan just a few days earlier. Susan pulled over to the side of the road so that she could give her full attention to Dr. Wright. "She told me I had breast cancer and I remember that I had to ask her to repeat herself," Susan recalls. "I called my husband and told him that I was in the fight of my life."

Susan was 49 years old. Her cancer was detected during her annual mammogram. When Susan's gynecologist called to tell her that her mammogram showed something suspicious, Susan wasn't concerned. She had no family history of breast cancer, no symptoms, and she took good care of her health. But she moved quickly to make an appointment with Dr. Wright. Susan had heard great reviews about Dr. Wright; after meeting her, she knew that she was in good hands.

Dr. Wright urged Susan to have a breast biopsy immediately. "I was fearful of the unknown," Susan says. "But Dr. Wright explained everything to me and my husband. I talked with my husband and we decided to go along with her recommendation. She performed the biopsy during my initial office visit."

Susan was diagnosed with stage I triple negative breast cancer, a form of cancer that does not respond to hormone therapy. Dr. Wright recommended a mastectomy because there were three tumors in Susan's breast and there was some distance between the tumors. She also recommended that Susan's surgery be followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. "From the beginning this has very much been a team approach," says Susan. "All my physicians met together to devise a plan of care for me. The surgery was just the beginning of my treatment." Dr. Wright explains: "We take a team approach to provide the compassionate care our patients need while offering state-of-the-art treatment options. We feel that a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach that includes our patients as partners in their care is extremely beneficial to our patients' recovery."

The surgery was successful, although cancer was found in one of Susan's lymph nodes, resulting in the reclassification of Susan's cancer to stage II. On the day of her surgery, Susan met with Rebecca Trupp, R.N., nurse navigator for the Breast Center. "Becky has been right there by my side through this entire experience," says Susan. "She has answered my questions, encouraged me, and has been a great resource for me in so many ways."

Just a few weeks after her surgery, Susan began 20 weeks of chemotherapy with medical oncologist Dr. Carolyn Hendricks. "Dr. Hendricks and her nurses have been phenomenal," she says. "Dr. Hendricks is so knowledgeable and has an excellent bedside manner."

To help herself cope with the effects of chemotherapy and radiation, Susan began attending exercise classes offered by a local cancer support group, at Rebecca Trupp's recommendation. "I started exercising during my chemotherapy as a way to help my body adjust to the side effects," she says. "It was beneficial to keep active."

Susan also met with Suburban Hospital nutritionist Patty Guay-Berry, who helped her learn about the proper nutrition for optimal health. Because triple negative breast cancer has a strong rate of recurrence, Susan is making dietary and lifestyle changes to improve her chances of staying cancer free.

About a month after completing chemotherapy, Susan began six weeks of radiation therapy with Dr. Susan Stinson, a radiation oncologist who is a full-time attending physician at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Radiation Oncology at the Suburban Outpatient Medical Center as well as medical director of Suburban Hospital's Cancer Program. Susan is tolerating the therapy well and looking forward to the final phase of her treatment, breast reconstruction with plastic surgeon Dr. C. Coleman Brown. Dr. Brown participated in Susan's mastectomy and has been following her throughout her treatment.

After taking an extended leave of absence to battle her cancer, Susan is eagerly anticipating the beginning of a new school year. "I'm amazed at how many women, young and old, must go through what I'm going through," she says. "It's been a long haul, but my entire healthcare team has been excellent. I can't say enough about them. My faith and strong belief in God has sustained me through the difficult months. Having a strong family and close friends, as well as my school family and my church family, truly helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel."