Sometimes the little voice in your head can be a bit bothersome. Other times, it has some excellent ideas that can even save your life. On Friday, August 7, 2020, the voice in Cynthia Howard’s head told her to do a self-breast examination – something she hadn’t done before. When Cynthia checked herself, she felt a lump. Cynthia called her doctor and by the following Monday, she met with radiologist Dr. Gretchen Stipec at the MemorialCare Breast Center at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center for diagnostic testing, where it was confirmed that she had breast cancer.
“Dr. Stipec is amazing. When she walked into the room to meet with me, she was so calming and reassuring,” said Cynthia. “Dr. Stipec said that this isn’t a death sentence, that we’re going to get through this, and everything will be ok. In a moment that my worst fears were realized, she helped make it seem manageable and that this is doable.”
As Cynthia finished her visit, Dr. Stipec gently put her hand on Cynthia’s back and said, “we got you.”
And that support continued to grow. A good family friend of Cynthia, Michael Dean, recommended she see Dr. Nilesh Vora, oncologist and medical director at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute. Throughout Cynthia’s journey, Dr. Vora never left her side.
Two weeks from her first meeting with Dr. Stipec, Cynthia had a biopsy done. About three to five days later, the results came in – stage I breast cancer, 1.5 centimeters. The good news, though, is that the cancer was caught very early.
But the next challenge was telling her three kids about her breast cancer diagnosis. As she told them, her kids showed her an overwhelming amount of support.
After learning more about the stage of breast cancer, Cynthia had her first appointment with Dr. Jessica Rayhanabad, who is the medical director of breast surgery at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute. Before any surgery was planned, Cynthia underwent genetic testing to see if she had an increased risk of cancer spreading to her other breast. Luckily for Cynthia, her testing came back negative.
“Had I received a positive result showing that I was at an increased risk, then I would have had a double mastectomy,” said Cynthia.
About a month after Cynthia’s genetics test, she moved forward with a lumpectomy, a minimally invasive surgery to remove abnormal tissue from the breast. Once the tumor was removed, she continued with additional treatment based on results from her Oncotype test – a way to see how likely her breast cancer would return after surgery and chemotherapy.
The Oncotype test gives a score between 0 – 100. Women who score 1- 19 means you’re unlikely to benefit from having chemotherapy. Cynthia’s score was 26. Meaning that she would benefit from having chemotherapy. Learning of her Oncotype score, Dr. Vora recommended chemotherapy.
Cynthia received four rounds of chemotherapy and used a cold cap to limit the balding she would experience from the treatments. The cold cap has liquid circulating through them and is connected to a computer that maintains the temperature of the cap. When the head is cooled, the blood vessels in the scalp constrict, reducing blood flow to the hair follicles, helping to reduce hair loss while undergoing chemotherapy.
Once she completed her chemotherapy, she met with radiation oncologist, Dr. Linda Chan to begin radiation treatments five days a week for a month.
Having wrapped up most of her treatments, Cynthia now takes a pill every day that helps her body not make any estrogen, a way to help keep her breast cancer from returning.
Once I knew what I was dealing with, and once I met my doctors, I knew I was in the best hands. I didn’t doubt or question – I just knew I was getting the gold standard of care.
Throughout her journey, Cynthia knew she wanted to give back in some capacity, so when she heard about Team Spirit Long Beach, she jumped at the chance to participate. Insert here an explanation of what team spirit is. She formed “Team We Got This” in honor of the support she received and as a reminder to others that they’re not alone on this journey.
In addition to participating in Team Spirit Long Beach, Cynthia also volunteers at the Breast Center and mentors newly diagnosed patients through the Women Guiding Women: Cancer Support & Education Program.
“This whole experience has been part of my life’s journey,” says Cynthia. “While challenging, there really were some beautiful moments. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to give back - it’s a gift for me to be able to volunteer.”