Early Diagnosis and Treatment Save the Life of Inflammatory Breast Cancer Patient
Cancer survivor Sandra Smith
Sandra Smith was diagnosed at age 58 with inflammatory breast cancer, a
relatively rare but often deadly form of the disease. That was in 1996. Today,
she is a 10-year breast cancer survivor, once again healthy and active. Here,
the Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, resident talks about her experience with breast
cancer and her treatment experience in the Breast
Evaluation and Treatment Program at the University of Maryland Marlene and
Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center.
What originally made you suspect that there might be a problem with
It was in August of 1996 and my husband and I were getting ready to go away
for a weekend at the beach in Fenwick Island. I noticed a pink spot on one of
my breasts and a patch of skin that looked inflamed, with an orange peel-like
appearance. Earlier that same year, I had a case of cellulitis in my leg and
foot that turned out to be very hard to treat, and so at first I thought that
maybe this was the same thing starting up again. So I didn’t waste any
time getting an appointment with my doctor.
How was your cancer diagnosed?
I went to my family doctor first, but she didn’t know much about this
type of breast cancer. She's a surgeon, so she did a needle biopsy of the area,
which showed that I did have cancer.
What was your reaction when you first heard the news?
We went to see an oncologist who was highly recommended. He reviewed all of
my mammograms and the biopsy results. I remember being stunned by what he told
me. He said that he only saw two or three cases like mine a year, that I had
a very rare type of breast cancer, and that the survival rate was very poor
-- about a year and half to three years. I was in total shock. I also decided
right then and there that, no matter how good the doctor was, I wanted to be
treated by someone with a better bedside manner.
How did you come to the University of Maryland cancer center?
The oncologist recommended that I consider treatment as part of a research
study. I knew that the type of breast cancer that I had – inflammatory
breast cancer – was aggressive and that I needed to begin treatment as
soon as possible. So, after a complete battery of diagnostic tests, we made
appointments at two different hospitals to explore the options. One doctor thought
I should have a bone marrow transplant, which sort of scared me. Then I came
and met with Dr. Tkaczuk [Katherine
Tkaczuk, M.D., director of the Breast Evaluation Program and
professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum
Cancer Center]. Right away, I knew I had found the place where I wanted
to have my treatment. I felt a sense of caring and empathy with "Dr. Kate"
What form of treatment did you undergo?
First I had aggressive chemotherapy for two months. Then, on December 18, I
had my surgery – a double mastectomy and several lymph nodes removed.
Surgery was followed by more chemotherapy from February to June, and then radiation
therapy for several more months.
Did you experience any side effects?
I took the chemotherapy treatments well. I was in treatment over the Thanksgiving
holiday, and I remember that I temporarily lost my sense of taste. At one point,
the drugs made my throat very raw and I had trouble eating, but I pulled through
I lost my hair from the chemo treatments. On the night before I went in for
surgery, my daughter and grandkids were kidding around, and they put some of
the children’s temporary tattoos on my bald head. I can still remember
the doctors and nurses laughing at my head covered in Christmas tattoos as I
went into surgery.
What did you think of your doctors and the staff?
Dr. Tkaczuk is fabulous. I just love her. All the nurses and staff in the Breast
Clinic are so warm and caring. They were all so nice to me and helped give me
the confidence that I could get through the treatments, beat the cancer and
be healthy again.
How are you doing now?
I feel great. For the first couple of years, I came back for checkups every
three months. Now I come in every six months for follow up. I like to garden
and do yard work — I prune my own trees — and I love to read and
go out with friends. I was lucky to have my supportive family and friends and
lots of prayers during my illness. My husband passed away in 2002, but I live
close to my kids and their families.
What advice would you give to other women?
My cancer was diagnosed 10 years ago, and not many people seemed to know about
inflammatory breast cancer at the time. Now here it is 10 years later, and a
lot of people still don’t know about it. We need to spread the word that
this kind of breast cancer is serious, but it can be cured if you catch it early.
For more information about inflammatory breast cancer, or the Breast Evaluation
and Treatment Program, please call 1-800-888-8823 or 410-328-7904.