October 28, 2019
It was 3 a.m., and Angela Grojean couldn’t sleep. As she lay in the darkness of her bedroom, a thought popped into her head, seemingly from nowhere. “For some reason, I just thought, ‘I haven’t done a breast self-exam for a long time. Maybe I should do that.’” Lying on her back, Angela examined her left breast. All seemed well. Then she examined the right. “And it felt like I had a peanut M&M under my skin,” she says.
“It was a God moment,” says Angela, 44. “I mean, who thinks about doing a breast exam in the middle of the night?” Angela thought the lump was odd but wasn’t overly concerned. An annual screening mammogram about 6 months prior indicated no sign of cancer. “I knew I couldn’t do anything about it right then, so I went back to sleep.”
That fateful night was in early November 2018, and on July 14, 2019, Angela and her 4 children attended the Kansas City Royals game at Kauffman Stadium where Angela sat in the Buck O’Neill Legacy Seat as the Breast Cancer Awareness Day at the K honoree. In less than a year, Angela’s life took a turn she never expected, ultimately leading her to help others facing some of the same challenges.
Breast cancer diagnosis and a decision
During her annual physical a couple days later at another healthcare facility, Angela told her primary care physician about the lump. The doctor ordered a diagnostic mammogram, and the results led to a biopsy. On November 13, Angela received the news no one wants to hear: You have cancer.
She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, which forms in the milk ducts and spreads to surrounding breast tissue, requiring a multidisciplinary treatment approach. She decided to meet with Kelsey Larson, MD, a breast surgical oncologist at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, to consider her options.
“We advise patients like Angela if they are candidates for lumpectomy, but they have the option to choose the more extensive surgical approach of mastectomy,” explains Dr. Larson. Angela’s cancer was stage 1, and lumpectomy was offered as an option, but Angela was reluctant. With a family history of breast cancer, she wanted peace of mind.
“I was scared,” Angela says bluntly. “My aunt had a mastectomy and then found cancer in her other breast. I didn’t want to go through this ever again.” Angela subsequently made a hard decision. “I opted for a double mastectomy and reconstruction,” she says. “It was really hard emotionally and physically, but I don’t regret it.”
Lumpectomy and mastectomy each come with specific pros and cons, but long-term survival statistics are virtually the same, Dr. Larson says. “We require radiation therapy after a lumpectomy, and some women don’t want to have that. Also, we tell our patients that lumpectomy doesn’t impact the risk of developing a secondary breast cancer, which is only about half a percent per year. Of course, a mastectomy does help reduce the risk of another breast cancer diagnosis down the road. Each patient has to weigh the options and decide what’s best for her. We provide information, support and answers.”
In addition to Dr. Larson, Angela’s treatment team included Anne O’Dea, MD, a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer, and Satish Ponnuru, MD, a plastic surgeon overseeing Angela’s breast reconstruction.
Breast cancer treatment recovery and discovery
Angela, who lives in Overland Park, had surgery on December 10, 2018. She only hazily recalls the following few days. “I was taking a lot of pain medication, and I couldn’t do anything for the first week,” she says. Family and close friends, as well as her faith community, flocked to her side, but one of the greatest gifts she remembers from that time was the comfort of her Healing Chair.
Healing Chair is a nonprofit organization that provides mechanical reclining lift chairs at no cost to women recovering from mastectomy. “Who’d have thought a chair could make such a difference?” Angela muses. “I slept in the Healing Chair and used it to help me get up. What an awesome ministry!”
As she rested, Angela’s body began to heal. Part of that process involved 4 small tubes draining fluid from her surgical sites into fist-sized rubber bulbs that attach to the external end. The bulbs, which must be emptied periodically, can be hard to hide and a challenge to manage.
“Not only are drains visible, but they can pull on your skin,” says Angela, adding that she described to friends the exact type of jacket (with interior pockets) she was looking for. Then a thoughtful friend scoured the Internet and found a zip-front hoodie with inside pockets to hide and support the drains. Angela was more than thankful – she was inspired.
Although she never used social media before, Angela created a blog about her experiences. “I had a feeling that I wasn’t the only one suffering, and I wanted to create something to inspire others to live in abundance even during life’s trials,” she says. She named her blog “Living in Abundance,” and it didn’t take long for Angela to develop a significant online following. Angela had a platform – and she soon had a plan.
Abundantly paying it forward
“I was going to an appointment with Dr. O’Dea when I noticed other women in the waiting room whose surgical drains were visible,” Angela says. “I thought how lucky I was to have my hoodie with the drain pockets, and then I thought, ‘Everyone here should have one of these, and there’s no reason I can’t gift them to women who need them.’”
Angela gathered a few friends together and the small group began sewing “Abundant Pocket Hoodies.” To raise money for the hoodies, she designed a T-shirt logo incorporating the word “courage” and the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon and began selling the shirts.
“I made the project into a nonprofit, and we’ve gifted 34 Abundant Pocket Hoodies to women all over the Kansas City area,” she says proudly. T-shirts, which cost $15 plus shipping, and hoodies, available for the cost of shipping only, are available by ordering online at livinginabundanceltd.com.
“Honestly, it’s been a hard few months,” Angela says. “But in the midst of suffering, you can find blessings. I didn’t think I could even breathe at times, but you just put one foot in front of the other.”
Dr. Larson anticipates that Angela will be taking steps long into the future. "Her prognosis is excellent with a low risk of recurrence,” she says. “I’ll be following Angela for 5 years, and our breast cancer survivorship team will be here for her indefinitely.
“Angela exhibited grace, positivity and strength throughout her diagnosis and treatment, and now she’s reaching out to others through Living in Abundance. She deserved to be honored in the Buck O’Neill Legacy Seat.”
Your best option for beating cancer
The Women’s Cancer Center at The University of Kansas Cancer Center focuses on breast and gynecologic cancers, providing specialized care to women.