Notice Anything Unusual?
Regina Groce of Baxter, a BRCA-positive breast cancer survivor, has a message for women everywhere: If you notice anything unusual, don’t wait to get it checked out.
“I found a lump in my breast, and I waited four to five months to go to the doctor because I thought, ‘It’s caffeine related, it’s nothing big.’ But in the back of my mind, it was, ‘What if it’s bad?’ I was scared to go because I didn’t want to find something bad, but when I picked up boxes at work, I could feel it pressing through.”
When she finally saw her doctor, an ultrasound showed what appeared to be a non-cancerous tumor. Her doctor told her to come back in a month if the lump stayed the same size or grew. A month later, the tumor had increased to the size of a golf ball, so her doctor referred her to general surgeon Dr. Scott Copeland to remove it and perform a biopsy.
“Five days later, Amy Ellis, R.N., BSN, CBCN (Cookeville Regional’s breast health nurse navigator) called me, and she said, ‘Do you have a minute?’ I was driving, so I pulled over. She said the pathology report was not what they expected. I don’t remember much after that. I know my life changed in that conversation.”
The report showed that Groce had HER2-positive, stage 2a breast cancer. An MRI showed that the cancer had spread to four lymph nodes near the original tumor, so Groce was scheduled for eight chemotherapy treatments and 28 radiation treatments.
Genetic testing showed that Groce carries the BRCA gene, which predisposes a patient to breast and ovarian cancer, so she had a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. Groce says that if Cookeville Regional had not offered genetic testing, she probably would not have learned about her risk for other types of cancer.
“Knowing your genetic risk changes your surgical decisions and surveillance plan,” said Ellis. “So, someone who’s BRCA positive who chose to keep their breasts would have a mammogram alternating with an MRI every six months, as opposed to yearly. The rationale behind that is that there’s an increased chance over the general population that you’re going to get a cancer, and we just want to find it as early as we can.”
Groce said that having a nurse navigator to help her through the whole experience was priceless.
“She was always there if I had questions, and if I was scared, I would text her,” said Groce. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, but she’s helped me so much with all of this. Everyone needs an Amy.”
“It’s okay to be scared, but not to be scared because you don’t know what’s coming,” said Ellis. “That’s the whole goal of the cancer navigator program — to help reduce that anxiety.”
Now, more than a year later, Groce is back to living her life.
“We caught it early. We caught it in a curable stage. But if I hadn’t waited, we could have caught it earlier,” said Groce. “I would definitely preach doing breast self-exams now. And go to your doctor if you find something, because it’s a lot scarier to wait, and they have all these options now to save your life.”