Erica Hawkins never dreamed she would develop breast cancer. A registered diet technician at Saddleback Medical Center for 22 years, the Ladera Ranch resident ate carefully. She exercised regularly, didn’t smoke or drink, and had no family history of the disease.

Yet when she was just 47, a routine mammogram revealed a suspicious change in her left breast. Specialists at the MemorialCare Breast Center at Saddleback Medical Center recommended a second mammogram and a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

“I was shocked and scared,” Erica says. “But I was also grateful for the doctors and staff at Saddleback. Their sensitivity and expertise made an extremely stressful time easier.”

Treatment Decisions

A nurse practitioner at the Breast Center coordinated Erica’s care, scheduling appointments and helping her through the difficult decision-making process. “Newly diagnosed patients receive support and education so they can participate fully in their own treatment planning,” says Richard Reitherman, M.D., medical director of the MemorialCare Breast Center at Saddleback Medical Center.

After careful consideration, Erica chose to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction. The mother of two teenagers knew that she never wanted to face a cancer diagnosis again. Since undergoing her surgeries, Erica has never looked back. “I’m doing really well. I’m taking tamoxifen— a drug that blocks the effects of estrogen on cancer cells. I also try to exercise and eat even more healthfully.”

A New Journey Begins

But that isn’t the end of the story. Erica’s experience with breast cancer led to a new career and new hope for other people like her. Encouraged by her nurse practitioner, Marcie Smith, R.N.P., and Randi Williams, R.D., director of food and clinical nutrition services at Saddleback Medical Center, Erica became involved in researching and updating the medical nutrition therapy guidelines for oncology that are used in nutrition counseling at the hospital.

Nutrition wellness counseling can provide support for cancer patients and survivors and is available in individual or group settings. Registered dietitians and diet technicians teach patients how to select foods that can help them cope with the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, such as nausea, vomiting, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing. Patients also learn how to prevent weight loss or gain during treatment and how to manage diabetes. Healthy eating and living guidelines for cancer prevention are also part of the program.

“Eating for cancer prevention is one of the most important things we teach,” Erica says. “But because it usually involves behavior change, it’s also one of the hardest. We show people how to modify their diet and eat the best they can. Even a small change can play a big part in preventing cancer or its recurrence.” Nutrition wellness sessions are covered by most insurance plans. A physician referral is necessary to enroll in the program.

Sharing Hope

Erica says she feels truly blessed. “I had the best care at a hospital noted for its expertise in diagnosing and treating cancer. Just as important, the love and support of my family, neighbors and co-workers kept me positive and made me feel cared for.”

Cancer also strengthened Erica’s resolve to help others. “I know how much it helped me to talk to and learn from other people. If I can make just one person feel better, it will have been worth it.”

The MemorialCare Breast Center at Saddleback Medical Center is committed to providing outstanding and compassionate cancer care. Mammography screenings are offered at the Laguna Hills and San Clemente locations. Both centers are equipped with digital mammography—a state-of-the-art technology that improves image quality and interpretation. A board-certified radiologist specializing in breast imaging reads every mammogram and ultrasound. Nutrition counseling is also available at both locations.

For more information, or to make an appointment, visit mammogram or nutrition wellness counseling.