With a friendly and plain-spoken way of talking about medical concerns, celebrity physician Dr. Oz has endeared himself to a wide audience. Cicely Crews, of Jackson, Tenn., her husband and children likely appreciate the doctor’s crusading approach to health information.
Cicely was watching Dr. Oz on television in late 2011 when he talked about the best way to do a breast self-exam. He noted that most women don’t examine themselves all the way up their arms.
“I did the exam right then,” says Cicely, who was 31. “And I found a lump up high on my arm.”
She delayed being checked for about three weeks. She had cosmetic breast implants, so thought the problem was related to them. Her mother finally urged her to be examined. The lump was breast cancer.
Later, Cicely’s oncologist told her she had triple-negative breast cancer that had traveled to three lymph nodes. Her doctor explained that triple-negative disease was not hormone-driven, so she would not benefit from hormonal therapy. He recommended chemotherapy.
“The mastectomy went so well, I was ready to go,” Cicely recalls. “I just thought, ‘I’m ready to do chemo,’ even though I didn’t know what it was gonna be like.”
Coping With Side Effects
Cicely had it all planned out: She would have chemotherapy on Wednesday, work at her job as a systems analyst on Thursday and Friday, then take the weekend to recover. She envisioned being back at work on Monday.
Instead, she quickly felt side effects from treatment, four cycles of doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), followed by four of paclitaxel (Taxol). Steroids she was given along with the chemotherapy medicines caused “a huge adrenaline rush.” Cicely had days of severe nausea, vomiting and fatigue. She needed pegfilgrastim (Neulasta) to raise her white blood cell count, and she had body aches and severe headaches.
Suppositories helped with the nausea. A co-worker advised that she drink water continuously, especially on treatment days. “He convinced me it would make a world of difference, and it did,” she says. “I recovered faster. It knocked off one day of symptoms.”
A Genetic Link
Because of Cicely’s young age, her oncologist recommended genetic testing, even though she was the first in her family to have breast cancer. Her doctor said that if she tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, Cicely would be at higher risk for ovarian cancer. She decided to have her ovaries removed if that was the test result.
Weeks later, Cicely learned she was BRCA1 positive and spoke with a genetic counselor about her family’s risk. Her son and daughter will be eligible for testing at age 18. If her son tests positive, “nothing surgical can be done,” she says. “The family doctor will teach him to do breast exams.”
Her sister and parents decided not to be tested. Her sister will be watched closely by a gynecologist and can receive mammograms before age 40.
Cicely developed lymphedema after her breast surgery and wears a compression wrap when needed. She also moved forward with removing her ovaries and uterus. Although four masses were found in her uterus, they were not cancer.
Her aunt introduced her to a young woman who was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer the year before Cicely. With each step Cicely takes, the woman offers insight.
“It was so recent for her and we did almost exactly the same treatment plan,” says Cicely. “When the first four chemotherapy sessions were so bad, she knew the last four weren’t so bad. That was very helpful…She completely understood what was happening.”
They talk at least weekly. “As each of her scans is clear, that encourages me,” Cicely adds.
She also has connected with family friends and co-workers who are affected by breast cancer and who are African-American, like herself. “Some I didn’t even know had breast cancer,” Cicely says. “When I was diagnosed, I got to know them better.”
Now she looks forward to having her port removed and beginning reconstruction.
“As awful as it is, it’s been more of a blessing than a burden,” she says. “I’ve gained so many friends and my family has grown closer. Everything has worked out well.”
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Photo by Nick-O-Nak Photography
This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.