‘An unintentional self-exam saved my life’

After years of regular mammograms, Shreveport mom discovers she has three tumors

In 2013, only a month after having a mammogram, Suzanne Western discovered a knot in her left breast. The knot turned out to be three tumors she needed to immediately have removed.  Photos by Henrietta Wildsmith

Suzanne Western has always been diligent when it comes to mammograms.

After losing a grandmother to breast cancer and seeing her aunt battle the disease, she’s always known the importance of keeping regular appointments for early detection. But it would be her own experience that would show her self-exams are equally as important.

In June 2013, only a month after a mammogram, Western found a knot in her left breast.

She had been getting ready for her first day back to work in fleet services in Shreveport following a summer vacation when she felt it while rubbing lotion on a sunburn.

“I told a couple of friends when I got to work,” she said. “We thought maybe I had pulled a muscle on our trip.”

However, with her family history of breast cancer, Western knew it was likely something far worse and made an appointment with her doctor for the next day.

“Sure enough, my suspicions were correct,” she said. “My doctor told me he was 99 percent sure it was breast cancer.”

Western had a biopsy the next day to confirm, and a subsequent MRI scan led to even worse news – she had not one but three tumors in her breast. She needed immediate surgery.

The news devastated her.

She had regular mammograms. How had they missed detecting three tumors? Moreover, how would she break the news to family and friends?

“We had just lost a good friend two years prior to the same cancer. How would I reassure my son, Justin, my case would be different?” Western said.

She carried her secret for a while; waiting to get all the facts of her prognosis before she spoke to him.

“God held my hand as I delivered the news to him and the rest of my family,” she said.

A couple weeks after she told him, Western went into surgery. The procedure went well but the healing process was slow.

“I couldn’t even open a bottle of water or wash my hair for quite a while,” Western said.

It wasn’t long before chemotherapy information started to arrive.

“I couldn’t bear the thought,” she said.

But despite her reluctance, she made an appointment with an oncologist. He detailed the process but Western had doubts.

“I started asking questions,” she said.

With a family history of breast cancer, Suzanne Western knew the importance of regular mammograms. But she quickly learned self-exams were equally as important.

Her doctors had previously ordered a PET scan – an imaging test that helps reveal how tissues and organs are functioning – and it showed she was cancer-free.  However, now they were asking her to undergo six months of chemo and radiation, which she felt would practically kill her in an effort to have the same result she had now – being cancer-free.

Western’s oncologist understood she wanted proof that moving forward with chemotherapy was the right decision. He recommended she take a MammaPrint test on the tumors. It would analyze the activity of about 70 different genes to determine the recommended treatment and the odds of cancer returning within a 10-year timeframe.

 “As we waited on the results, my sweet son told me one night as he stroked my hair with tears running down his face ‘Mom, you are not going to lose your hair.’ I said ‘Well, Justin, I hope you are right but if I do, it will be OK.’” Western said.

The results indicated that Suzanne would not benefit from chemo or radiation.

“I highly recommend this test and to have your team of doctors slow down and not rush you into something that you might not benefit from in the end,” she said.

It was great news and Western was thankful she did not have to go through the treatments and lose her hair. However, she was still depressed.

“I can’t really explain how depressing it was and still is some days,” she said.

Her oncologist recommended a low-dose anti-depression medication, which Western was not a fan of initially, but hesitantly agreed.

“I had God right beside me all the way. Why did I have to take medications to cope with my new situation?” she asked herself.

She said hearing her oncologist explain that the anti-depressant would help her body deal with the shock it was experiencing after the removal of her lymph nodes helped her better understand its benefit.

Western continues to take the same medication and visits her doctors regularly for checkups. She said her support system of God, her family a few close friends helped her through her cancer diagnosis and treatment.  When she retires, she plans to pay that forward and spend time sitting with cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy alone.

“I have several friends and family who have lost their battle with cancer,” she said. “Only by God’s grace am I still here and I give him all the praise.”

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