That October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month was all too real for Adeola Iribhogbe after she found a lump in her left breast and was diagnosed with breast cancer last Oct. 15. Now a year later and finishing up her treatment, Iribhogbe is ready to speak out after she feels she had to battle to get her concerns taken seriously.
This year nearly 250,000 women and men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, including more than 7,000 women in Georgia, and nearly 41,000 will die from it. But with ever more sophisticated and precise treatment increasing survival even in cancers that have spread, the difference in treatment and in therapy from even 20 years ago is “night and day,” said Dr. Shou-Ching Tang, director of the Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Team at Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University and co-leader of the Breast Cancer Interdisciplinary Translational Research Team.
Iribhogbe had just given birth to her son, Alexander, five months before and was still breast-feeding him when she found what felt like “a big grape,” in her breast. The breasts can change during breast-feeding, her primary care doctor told her, so it is probably nothing serious. But Iribhogbe, a registered nurse who works in the Heart and Vascular Institute at University Hospital, decided to pursue a mammogram anyway.
“On the day of the mammogram, the technician kept taking multiple pictures,” she said, “You know, ‘Turn this way, turn that way.’ And I ended up being the last patient in the center. So I said at this point, I think something is wrong.” The radiologist confirmed it when she told Iribhogbe “it was suspicious and it was concerning.” A biopsy and pathology report confirmed it.
“There was no family history so it did come as a shock to me,” Iribhogbe said. Genetic testing provided more bad news: she had the BRCA1 gene mutation, which not only increases the risk of breast cancer but also ovarian cancer. So in addition to having a double mastectomy, Iribhogbe also opted to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in the same long surgery. Having a six-year old daughter, Arianna, in addition to her son took some of the sting out of that decision, she said.
“It was, do what you’ve got to do to save my life so I can be here for these two little ones that I have,” Iribhogbe said. But the surgery also revealed the cancer had spread to three lymph nodes so chemotherapy was recommended, which she had been hoping to avoid.
“It was super scary,” Iribhogbe said. “Not just because I know as a nurse how it debilitates you physically but the fear of not being able to work, no income coming in for that period of time.” Her husband was a full-time student who is now hoping to get into Dental College of Georgia so she wondered, “how are we going to make it, how are we going to survive if I am not working?” The family got help with bills from University Health Care Foundation and the generosity of friends and neighbors was overwhelming, Iribhogbe said.
And the truth is the treatments she endured are far better than what doctors had even a couple of decades ago, Tang said. He will be in Copenhagen at the European Society of Medical Oncology this week presenting the results of a study on a novel drug designed to get at tumors in the brain that have spread from breast cancer.
The drug uses a peptide attached to the cancer drug Taxol that will “drag this drug across the blood-brain barrier” that would normally block it from entering the brain, Tang said. Previously, those tumors could only be treated by radiation or surgery.
Previous chemotherapy was like “blanket bombing” the cancer, indiscriminate attacks that didn’t work that well and carried a lot of toxic side effects, he said. Back then there were only a few drugs whereas now clinicians have a growing array of medicines, including the immunotherapies the Augusta center is gaining notice for.
“They are designed specifically against the genetic mutation of the cancer so that we can truly now offer the patient so-called personalized precision medicine,” Tang said.
Even with cancer that metastasizes to other organs, while not curable yet, “at least we are hoping to control into a chronic disease,” he said. Patients then “can live with a quality of life, live with dignity and live without symptoms,” Tang said. “We are getting there.”
This October, as the end of her treatment is in sight, Iribhogbe is hoping to have a much different experience than the previous one.
“It was Breast Cancer Awareness Month so I was paying so much more attention to what was going on,” she said. “I was watching and seeing the walk and the women talking about surviving. But I didn’t come out because it was hard for me to talk about it at first. I didn’t want to share with too many people. I didn’t know who I could trust with the news. I didn’t want to be pitied. I didn’t want anyone who would look at me as though I was going to die tomorrow.”
But now Iribhogbe is ready to tell her story and she has a forceful message. ”You have to be your own patient advocate.
“I want to be on the mountaintop and shout it out loud,” she said. “Even if you don’t have a family history, you need to make sure that you know your body and you get checked out. You have to be your own patient advocate.”