August 13, 2019
When Hilary Edwards saw the number of the incoming call, she momentarily froze. “I knew the call was from The University of Kansas Cancer Center, and I knew it wasn’t just an automated appointment reminder,” she says.
Hilary, who is a maintenance sales consultant in Lawrence, was in a meeting at work and couldn’t answer right away. Moments later she saw a voicemail notification.
As soon as she left the meeting, she took a deep breath and played the voicemail. The voice of Amanda Amin, MD, jolted her again. “Why would my breast surgeon be calling me? I thought maybe something was wrong, but I couldn’t imagine what. I just went cold for a second,” Hilary recalls.
Her fear lasted only a moment more as Dr. Amin cheerily told Hilary she had been chosen as an honoree for the Kansas City Royals’ Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat program. On August 12, 2018, Hilary would enjoy the ballgame from “Buck’s Seat” at Kauffman Stadium. The program honors individuals who touch others’ lives, honoring the spirit of Kansas City sports and community legend Buck O’Neil.
“Hilary is a very special lady. She deserves this honor,” says Dr. Amin, a breast surgical oncologist at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. “She was a joy to take care of, and her positive attitude helped her get through some very tough treatments.”
An unexpected breast cancer diagnosis
Hilary, who lives in Lawrence, was 39 years old in January 2017 when she noticed blood on her nightshirt. She couldn’t imagine what caused the discharge from her nipple, especially since her doctor expressed no concerns during her annual well-woman exam only 3 months earlier. She had never been pregnant, had no family history of breast cancer and was too young for regular screening mammograms.
“I assumed it had to be some sort of infection,” she says.
When the discharge became more frequent, Hilary made an appointment with her primary care physician in Lawrence. “They said they’d get me in to see the doctor the next morning, and that’s when I thought maybe this was something to worry about,” she says.
Her doctor ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. After suspicious findings on those tests, Hilary had a biopsy at a healthcare facility in Lawrence on Valentine’s Day. Two days later she learned she had breast cancer.
“The doctor who called me with the news seemed concerned but didn’t convey an immediate sense of urgency. I was told I could wait from 2 weeks to 3 months before starting treatment. Of course, I wanted to start right away and get the cancer out,” she says.
That night, Hilary gathered her best friends for wine, cookies, conversation and moral support. One friend recommended Hilary seek a 2nd opinion and started the ball rolling with a call to her sister-in-law who works for The University of Kansas Health System. The next day Hilary set up her first appointment with The University of Kansas Cancer Center and began what she refers to as “a whirlwind of additional tests.”
Tackling breast cancer treatment with optimism
Dr. Amin says Hilary’s initial symptom was unusual, yet her breast imaging showed a 5.7-centimeter tumor, considered quite large. In addition, Hilary had an aggressive type of breast cancer. Priyanka Sharma, MD, a breast medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at the cancer center, recommended chemotherapy followed by surgery.
“The traditional approach has always been to go to surgery first and then give chemo after,” Dr. Amin says. “However, we know that when people receive chemo first, there is opportunity to downstage both the tumor in the breast, which can make surgery easier, and it can also kill any potential tumor cells in the lymph nodes, making it possible to remove fewer lymph nodes at the time of surgery. Chemotherapy never takes away the need to go to surgery, but it is definitely something we consider doing first if we feel it is a necessary part of the treatment plan.”
On March 2, 2017, Hilary began an 18-treatment chemotherapy course, flooding her body with Adriamycin®, known as the “red devil,” and Cytoxan®, followed by Taxol. She completed her chemo treatments on July 20. By her 4th treatment, Hilary’s discharge stopped, a reassuring sign that the cancer was retreating.
“I was tired and bald, but it could have been much worse,” Hilary says. Despite her fatigue, she continued working, often tackling her duties from home. An avid runner, she also continued running for the first 2 months of treatment and maintained a rigorous walking regimen when side effects affected her ability to run.
“I was really mad at the cancer, and I wasn’t going to let it win,” she says. “There were things I couldn’t control, but I controlled what I could, and I was determined to continue my life and activities.”
Hilary’s mantra throughout her treatment journey was “I’ve got this,” and her attitude remained upbeat and positive, another conscious determination she made to exert control over her disease.
“I learned that we get out of our experiences what we put in, and it just took less energy to stay positive than it did on the few occasions when I really let myself feel down,” she notes.
“I also realized that I had incredible support, which made me feel so grateful,” she adds. “My husband was an absolute rock. My friends were wonderful – always there for me. And the doctors and staff at the cancer center were absolutely incredible. I knew I was going to slay the cancer beast.”
Taking control over her breast cancer risk
Hilary credits her medical team and treatment, attitude, activity and healthy diet with her complete response to chemotherapy. She only celebrated briefly, however, as she considered her options for the next phase of treatment.
“Lumpectomy or mastectomy are the surgical options for breast cancer,” Dr. Amin says. “Because of the size of her breast and the size of the tumor, she was not a good candidate for lumpectomy, so mastectomy was her only option to manage the affected breast.”
Again, Hilary wanted to exert maximum control. “I knew I would be furious if I ever got cancer in my other breast,” she says. “So, I talked with Dr. Amin and my husband and decided I would have more peace of mind with a double (bilateral) mastectomy and reconstruction.”
Dr. Amin supported Hilary’s decision, noting that “this was a personal choice, and Hilary elected to have her opposite breast removed to decrease her risk of a future cancer. This also helps with symmetry from a reconstruction standpoint and eliminates her need for screening imaging of the left side. Yet, she knows removal of the opposite breast does not change her prognosis or survival, which will all be driven by the cancer in her right breast.” That prognosis is good.
On August 14, 2017, Hilary had surgery. Two days later, on a Saturday, Dr. Amin called to tell her that there was no evidence of cancer in any lymph nodes or remaining tissue. There was no need for follow-up radiation therapy, and Hilary says her subsequent reconstructive surgery left her looking and feeling fantastic. “I was very lucky,” she notes. “I consider it an easy journey.”
The journey continues
Hilary praises the cancer center team for their collaborative efforts to attack her cancer while providing support and remaining responsive throughout. Dr. Amin agrees. "As a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, we have a unique focus on the multidisciplinary management of breast cancer. All of Hilary’s specialists focus only on the management of breast cancer. We were able to discuss her care in a multidisciplinary fashion to determine what the best treatment course would be for her.”
For instance, Dr. Amin notes that at some healthcare facilities Hilary would have had surgery first. “Here, a breast cancer patient is always seen by the surgeon and the medical oncologist at the time of presentation so we can decide together what the best approach for the patient will be,” she says. “We now have clinics where these visits can be coupled to minimize the travel and time off patients need to take to see their providers.”
Hilary is thriving, back to running regularly and “no worse for wear.” Yet she still seems modestly bewildered by her honorary seat at the ballgame. “There are so many women who are graceful survivors. I’m no better than they are,” she says. Regardless, she is savoring every day and every experience. “If sharing my story can somehow help someone else, then I’m thrilled to do it,” she says.
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To make an appointment at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, call 913-588-1227.
As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.