Advocating For Your Health: A Breast Cancer Warrior's Story
- Brittany Zuber was first diagnosed with breast cancer at 26. Now, about six years later she’s facing the disease again. Both times, she had to fight for the correct diagnosis.
- Metastatic breast cancer is technically not curable, but with ongoing advancements in treatments and options to dramatically reduce symptoms, there are many reasons to be hopeful.
- Being your own advocate can be key to coming to a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
Zuber was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 26. But that diagnosis only came after fighting to get an initial scan and a biopsy of lump she was told was a cyst.Read More
Thankfully, Zuber wasn’t satisfied with “probably” and decided to see another doctor who eventually got her to the correct diagnosis, stage two invasive breast cancer, and treatment. She beat the disease a year later after multiple surgeries, infections and 14 rounds of chemotherapy.
Sadly, this would not mark the end of her cancer journey. About six years later, Zuber is faced with breast cancer yet again. And despite her history, she still had to fight for her concerns to be taken seriously.
“I went in, and they said well that’s a cyst on your neck, which is the same story I got with my tumor originally,” she said. “So I’m like no, this is not normal.”
Her “cyst” grew for months, more lymph nodes began to swell and her back started to hurt, but doctors still felt weary about getting her a scan.
“They said I did not have enough evidence to warrant a scan,” she explained. “Then, when I demanded a scan they said ok, but it was coded wrong and so insurance denied it.
“At that point, I tracked down Dr. Makhoul [the doctor who helped her last time]… He had zero problem getting it approved.”
She eventually found out her cancer was metastatic and had spread to her bones and lymph nodes. Zuber and her team are using newly approved drugs and looking into further options to treat her disease, and the two-time cancer warrior is trying her best to stay hopeful.
“[My doctor] said I don’t want you to feel despair and that’s hard when you’re looking at this diagnosis,” she said. “But I know that he said, I don’t want you to feel despair. We’re going to handle it. I trust him.”
Understanding Stage Four Breast Cancer
Metastatic breast cancer – also called “stage four” breast cancer – means that the cancer has spread, or metastasized, beyond the breasts to other parts of the body. It most commonly spreads to the bones, liver and lungs, but it may also spread to the brain or other organs.
And while there is technically no cure for metastatic breast cancer, there is a wide variety of treatment options used to battle the disease including hormone therapy, chemotherapy, targeted drugs, immunotherapy and a combination of various treatments.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Elizabeth Comen, an oncologist with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, explained how she tries to manage breast cancer when it has progressed to a later stage.
“With advanced disease, the goal of treatment is to keep you as stable as possible, slow the tumor growth and improve your quality of life,” she said.
The American Cancer Society reports that there were more than 3.8 million U.S. women with a history of breast cancer alive at the start of 2019. Some of the women were cancer-free, and others still had evidence of the disease, but they also reported that more than 150,000 breast cancer survivors were living with metastatic disease, three-fourths of whom were originally diagnosed with stage I-III. And with ongoing advancements in treatments and options out there today that can dramatically reduce systems, there are many reasons to be hopeful.
Advocating for Your Health
As we’ve seen in the case of Zuber, it’s always important to pay attention to the changes happening to your body and insist that medical professionals investigate.
“Never ever quit fighting,” Zuber said. “If you think something’s wrong, it doesn’t matter who you have to go through, what you have to do, but you need to find out what it is.”
You have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer, other avenues for treatment or the potential of a different diagnosis. And if you simply don’t know what’s causing a change to your body, you should still seek professional help. You never know when speaking up about a seemingly unimportant issue can lead to a very important diagnosis – cancer or otherwise.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.