Making every step count

Breast cancer patient shares her journey to build awareness

Shalena PrudeFor Shalena Prude, life is not something to face sitting down.

Grounded in strong friendships and family ties, Shalena has built a successful career and kept a close watch on her health. But a breast cancer diagnosis two years ago showed her just how strong she needed to be to stay standing.

An unexpected diagnosis

Health has always been at the forefront for Shalena. She earned degrees in public health and nutrition, and currently works for a healthcare technology company.

Because she lost her father to colon cancer when she was 34, she has been vigilant about routine checkups and screenings. She maintains a healthy diet, works out and has undergone genetic testing for cancer, receiving clear results for all cancer markers.

She planned to schedule a mammogram at the recommended age of 40. In October 2013, at age 38, plans changed when her fiancé noticed a lump in one breast. Her primary care physician referred her to Jamie Wagner, DO, a breast surgeon with The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

Dr. Wagner noticed some irregularity in the mass and ordered additional tests.

“At that point, I began to worry pretty severely,” Shalena said. “Her suspicion was based on very good experience. Time just sort of stood still. This was not something I felt like I would be facing at my age.”

The diagnosis was stage 2A metaplastic triple negative breast cancer, a very rare and aggressive form of cancer. About 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers are triple negative, and fewer than 2 percent are metaplastic. These cancers are more difficult to treat and have a poorer prognosis.

Heart of a survivor

Dr. Wagner recommended chemotherapy, followed by surgery.

“There is a lot of fear surrounding metaplastic cancer, because it grows rapidly,” she said. “Rather than jump to surgery, however, I felt like we had a window of opportunity to treat with chemotherapy to see if the cancer would respond.”

Shalena traveled to another cancer center for a second opinion. Oncologists at the center confirmed the same treatment therapy – six months of chemotherapy. She returned to The University of Kansas Cancer Center, happy to be receiving treatment close to home but overwhelmed at the duration.

“Initially, I thought I would probably be getting six weeks of treatment,” Shalena said. “I was floored by the fact I was getting six months.”

It would take a lot of fight for Shalena to stand strong during the intense chemo regimen that followed. In February 2014, Shalena began the first of 18 prescribed cycles of chemo treatments. In June, her treatment concluded after 15 rounds, when her white blood cell count failed to climb back up.

During treatment, her resolve was incredible. Shalena searched out support groups online. She continued to exercise as frequently as she could, sometimes slowly walking around the block just to keep moving. She lived alone and monitored her health. She continued to work, pushing through sickness, hair loss and other physical changes.

“It was really a significant blessing that I could keep working and doing everyday things,” she said. “I couldn’t afford not to work, in many ways. To be able to laugh, to talk and just keep busy and be around people was a big help.”

Shalena was determined to stay strong on the outside. She did not even tell her coworkers about the cancer.

“This was not going to be the thing that defined me.”

Instead, she embraced the role of survivor from the start, Dr. Wagner noted.

“Her attitude was, ‘Ok, this is bad but tell me what I have to do to beat it,’” Dr. Wagner said. “The point of going through treatment is to become a survivor. My message to her was to start acting like a survivor from the start, and she fit into that role perfectly.”

The chemotherapy did not shrink Shalena’s tumor, but it prevented it from growing. Next, Dr. Wagner performed a unilateral skin-sparing mastectomy, followed by reconstructive breast surgery with Julie Holding, MD.

A new chapter

Time has healed Shalena in many ways. She is ready to share her story and to let others see her cancer not as a weakness but as a brave chapter in her journey.

She has been cancer free for more than a year. At two years, the probability of her developing cancer drops significantly.

She appreciates each day and takes nothing for granted. And she has learned the art of advocacy, sharing her story in hopes that it may help others.

“I learned that one story can be powerful. If I can convince others to go get a mammogram or talk to their physician and really take charge of their health, I can make a difference,” said Shalena, who turned 40 in September.

Building self-awareness

Dr. Wagner’s message for other women: Know your body. Breast self-exams are one tool, but also watch for any changes to your body. 

“The key is to know what is normal for you and be aware of any changes to the way your breasts look or feel. Be your own advocate, and do not stop until you find answers,” said Dr. Wagner.

As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.

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U.S. News and World Reports 2019-2020