By Jennifer Sellers
Breast cancer scares were nothing new to Waynesville resident Jenny Owens. Since 2002, she had endured an on-and-off series of lumps, mammograms, ultrasounds and biopsies. In the summer of 2015, when she found a new lump, Owens was as concerned as always, but she believed it would be just another benign tumor.
Unfortunately, her biopsy results showed that her streak of false alarms had ended. She was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer — invasive ductal carcinoma and a lymph node positive for metastatic cancer. Rather than feeling defeated by this news, Owens launched into fight mode.
“The question no one wants to admit asking themselves was one I answered by my first oncologist appointment,” said Owens. “The question was: ‘Why me?’ And my answer was: ‘Why not me?’ I was uniquely prepared for this battle. I had dealt with cancer before when my son had it, and I knew what to expect. And, as an Air Force veteran, I was trained to fight. So I knew if this cancer wanted to pick me for a battle, I was going to give it one hell of a fight.”
Owens was not going to take any chances in cancer coming out the winner. She would do everything she could to make sure the odds were in her favor. This meant choosing a double mastectomy over a lumpectomy with radiation, even though the treatment results are similar in terms of long-term survival. “I felt even a small reduction in recurrences was worth it,” Owens said.
The surgery was successful, and Owens’ additional nodes had been checked and were negative for cancer. When Owens’ pathology report returned with the news of clear margins, it was also found that her largest tumor was interspersed with scar tissue. Because the true size of the actual tumor was smaller than previously thought, Owens’ cancer was downgraded to stage IIB.
After surgery, it was time for Owens to begin additional treatments. Because her cancer was strongly hormone receptor positive, she had to undergo hormone therapy. And there were also cancer-targeting treatments to consider.
“There was debate over whether I should undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both,” said Owens. “As my doctors were making this decision, my feelings were factored in. Some patients want to medicate only where absolutely necessary, while others want to lob everything at the cancer, including the kitchen sink. Both approaches are valid, but I belong to the latter group. I let my doctors know that if chemotherapy and radiation would reduce my recurrence rate by even just 1 percent, I was going to do it.”
Owens retained her fighting spirit throughout her chemotherapy and radiation. “I envisioned my two chemo meds were Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris going in to kick some tail!” she said. “On the second day after my first chemo, I actually spoke at the Taking Strides breast cancer event and walk in Asheville. I even had some bracelets made for my friends to wear to remind them to pray for me and to remember that I was fully committed to fighting this disease all the way. The bracelets read: ‘Jenny Owens — Kicking Cancer’s Butt!’”
“A Team for Me”
Owens was able to make informed decisions about her care because of the information, advice and support given to her by her care team. The options Owens’ doctors presented to her were a result of meetings in which all of her providers gathered to discuss and plan her coordination of care. This approach ensures that each patient receives seamless, individualized treatments. Rachel Raab, MD, a medical oncologist and Director of the Mission Breast Program, stated that this multidisciplinary approach to care is extremely important in providing each patient with the most up-to-date and state-of-the-art breast cancer treatment.
“The old model of care had each provider looking at his or her own piece of the puzzle,” said Jennifer McAlister, MD, breast surgeon with Regional Surgical Specialists, a part of Mission Health, and a member of the Mission Breast Program. “The surgeon took care of the surgery and then sent the patient on to the radiation oncologist and so on. At Mission, however, we’ve found that a team approach benefits the patient better. Not only does it reduce the number of office visits, phone calls and questions on the patient’s end, it also makes sure the care is more customized and better coordinated.”
Dr. Raab agreed. “The involvement of physicians and individuals from multiple specialties, including not only medical, surgical and radiation oncology, but also plastic surgery, radiology, pathology, genetics, nurse navigation and physical therapy is necessary to provide women with the most up-to-date care,” she said. “It truly takes a team in order to properly care for someone with breast cancer. That’s why the Mission Breast Program is a collaboration between multiple practices.”
Owens’ team consisted of surgeon Dr. McAlister, oncologist Dr. Raab, radiation oncologist Kellie Condra, MD, nurse navigator Janet Magruder, RN, and many other care providers, including a geneticist, plastic surgeon and multiple nurses and coordinators.
“What I learned in the weeks before my surgery was that I had my own special group of people who would meet to discuss my case and make decisions together,” said Owens. “A team for me — and I loved every one of them.”
Dr. McAlister pointed out that one of the goals of care coordination is to give patients this kind of confidence in their care. “Patients feel better knowing they have a solid plan and a dedicated team,” she said.
Owens said she was also pleased with her providers on an individual basis. “From the beginning, I could see that Dr. Raab was sweet, gentle and immensely skilled,” she said. “And during our very first appointment, Dr. Raab contacted Dr. McAlister, who called her back while I was still at the appointment. I was impressed. I felt I was going to be in good hands with these doctors.”
Now, over a year since her initial diagnosis, Owens is doing well. She gets monthly injections of a drug that shuts down her ovaries — another precaution. “In premenopausal women, these drugs prevent estrogen from being formed by my body,” she explained. “And since my cancer loves estrogen, I have put it on an estrogen-free diet.”
She also pointed out that her kind of cancer isn’t one that’s typically considered cured. Rather, her goal is to remain cancer-free — but with follow-ups and monitoring for life. Now, however, she’s more conscientious than ever about her health. She said if there was one thing she could go back and do differently, it would have been taking every lump seriously, regardless of how many false alarms she had had before.
There is one thing Owens says she’s certain she wouldn’t change about her breast cancer journey, however: her treatment team. “I don’t feel it would be possible to have a better experience than I have had with the Mission Breast Program and the doctors who provided my care,” she said. “They quite literally saved my life — how could I complain?”
Jenny Owens and the Mission Breast Program were also featured in a WLOS Health Alert, as seen below.
The Mission Breast Program offers customized, coordinated care to women facing breast disease. Our team of experts has a deep and broad knowledge base combined with years of experience and specialized training. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call (855) 213-2500 or visit mission-health.org/breastprogram.
Rachel Raab, MD, is Director of the Mission Breast Program and a hematologist oncologist with Cancer Care of Western North Carolina, an affiliate of Mission Health.
Jennifer McAlister, MD, is a breast surgeon with Regional Surgical Specialists, a part of Mission Health, and a member of the Mission Breast Program.
Kellie Condra, MD, is a radiation oncologist with Mountain Radiation Oncology, a part of Mission Health, and a member of the Mission Breast Program.