Everything said the lump in her left breast was not cancer. Dr. Alicia Huff was only 25 years old in 2009 and just entering her fourth year at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee, Ga. A mammogram and ultrasound both said it was benign. And it was painful, which is not typical of breast cancer. After the lump was removed, however, she got the call she wasn’t expecting – it was invasive cancer, and they would have to go back in.
“It was shocking. It was devastating actually,” Huff said. “I couldn’t believe it and kind of felt my body had betrayed me. It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. I really for a while thought it was a mistake.”
It wasn’t and because one of her lymph nodes was involved, she would have to go through chemotherapy and radiation and delay graduating medical school until this year. Now a first-year resident in general surgery at Georgia Health Sciences University, she is determined to help spread awareness among young women, to talk about the need to help preserve fertility, and to one day become a surgeon who can help other women through their breast cancer.
After negotiating with her school to allow her time off for treatment, the next issue she had to deal with was a potential loss of fertility because of chemotherapy. It was an issue she had to explore and one she thinks needs more discussion with young patients of childbearing age.
“I think it needs to be definitely discussed with women because you don’t know,” Huff said. “They might easily survive it and live a long life and you don’t want to take away that potential for a family.”
Getting her eggs frozen, however, was not something her insurance would cover, which is another issue for women, she said. Fortunately through Fertile Hope, a project of Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG foundation, she was able to get partial funding for the $7,000 or so she needed, and friends and family helped raise the rest. Huff hopes she can also help raise awareness among younger women to do monthly self-exams – she found her lump within a few months of starting the checks.
She also hopes her experience will help make her not only a better surgeon but a compassionate resource for her patients facing the same diagnosis. One patient she had was anxious about surgery to place a port, a medical device implanted under the skin that connects to a vein and helps make multiple needle sticks for chemotherapy easier. Huff simply showed the patient hers.
“She just completely calmed down and said, ‘Thank you so much,’ and was able to be completely calm going into the (operating room),” she said.
It is a perspective she hopes will benefit others, no matter their age.
“It is very different to be on the other side of things and to see how things feel when you are laying there in that bed,” Huff said. “I’ve definitely been able to offer my patients a lot of comfort by saying, ‘I had this surgery’ or ‘I know how you feel and I was scared, too, but you’re going to be fine. We’re going to take great care of you’ ”