The news was utterly devastating back in 2006 when Mary White learned she had Stage IV breast cancer that had spread throughout her body to her bones.
She had felt a lump in her breast a year earlier, but more than one doctor had dismissed her concerns. Finally, she was in good medical hands, but perhaps the help had come too late.
Mary focused on surviving while getting her affairs in order.
“I canceled my subscription to the New Yorker,” Mary, now 61, quipped.
Then, about a year later, a friend gave her a little dog named Buddy. He’s a Maltese Shih Tzu. Mary worried that she wouldn’t be around to take care of Buddy.
Then her friend said, “You’re going to outlive this dog.”
White didn’t believe him, but now she does.
“I think it’s true,” she said.
Buddy has lived up to his name, becoming Mary’s best buddy and a loving companion. Buddy is now 14. He’s a little old man who loves both walking and napping.
Mary, meanwhile, is thriving. She’s irrepressibly positive about living with cancer. She says things like, “Living without hair is incredibly freeing” and “Chemotherapy is my Zen time.” She loves hiking, cycling, spending time with family and friends and has worked for the same Denver family for 30 years.
Mary’s cancer specialist, Dr. Radhika Acharya-Leon, doesn’t like to throw the word “miracle” around, but in Mary’s case, Acharya says her survival truly is miraculous.
“Back in 2006, the prognosis for metastatic breast cancer was just a couple of years. And here we are,” said Acharya, who sees patients primarily at the UCHealth Cancer Center in Highlands Ranch and is also an assistant professor of medicine and medical oncology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Acharya said Mary’s optimism no doubt has helped her triumph over cancer.
“We don’t see a lot of patients like this: her energy, her mindfulness, her will. It’s more than just the treatments we are giving her. She has the most positive outlook. I know she will continue to do well,” Acharya said.
Breast cancer survivor gets monthly injections in Cherry Creek
The one hitch is that Mary has to have monthly injections of Faslodex and Herceptin, two drugs that keep her cancer at bay.
These regular appointments are reassuring to Mary.
“They make me feel safer,” Mary said. “If anything goes wrong, it’s going to be caught right away and there’s great comfort in that.”
Now Mary has a new, homey place to get her injections. She can walk from her job in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood a few blocks to the new UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center, which boasts a new Cancer Center, affiliated with the University of Colorado Cancer Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
She’s been getting her treatments there all summer as the center prepared to fully open this month.
“It’s a lovely place and everybody is great,” Mary said.
Her injections are a little painful, but she feels well afterward. Combining the treatments with a relaxing walk to and from her office also gives her a break during busy days.
And over the years, Mary has grown very close to all of her providers. Many of the nurses at Cherry Creek are veterans and a couple have known Mary for years.
“It’s a balm to be there. They take me seriously and treat me kindly. They are committed to caring for people. They’re so tuned in to what I might be feeling and what I need,” Mary said.
A devastating delay and aggressive treatment for breast cancer
To be listened to and pampered is such a wonderful contrast with the dismissive treatment Mary received years ago before she found Acharya.
She first felt a lump in her breast back in the spring of 2005. She told her primary care provider at the time, who sent her to a specialist. Unfortunately, that doctor missed Mary’s cancer. A year later, Mary was having pain in her ribs. An orthopedist also missed the cancer and prescribed physical therapy.
“I was feeling achy, weak and tired all the time. I was feeling like something was wrong,” she said.
She told her primary care provider, “I feel like I’m going to die. I feel like I have some type of cancer.”
That provider thought she needed anti-depressants, which seemed crazy because everyone in Mary’s life knew she’s one of the naturally happy people.
Finally, Mary took matters into her own hands. She went through the phone book and found a doctor who did a thorough breast exam and connected her with Acharya.
By the time Acharya saw Mary for the first time, scans showed she had cancerous tumors in both breasts and that the cancer had also spread to her bones. That’s why her ribs had been so sore. The only good news was that the cancer had not spread into Mary’s lymph nodes.
“Bones are easier to treat,” Mary said.
Acharya advocated for an aggressive treatment regimen which included chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, the removal of Mary’s ovaries and radiation.
While all of her treatments were frightening and left her with some challenging side-effects, Mary experienced wave after wave of loving support.
Friends, families and acquaintances all rallied to her side.
“Since I was ‘alone,’ people gathered around me and cared for me and lifted me up,” said Mary, who has always been single. “My best friend from high school and my college roommate came for chemo week. No one let me go through anything alone.”
Mary grew up in Delaware, but has lived in Denver for decades.
“It was the most amazing, uplifting, surrendering experience. It was the hardest and the best six months of my life.
“I can’t even talk about it without getting a little weepy,” Mary said, choking with emotion.
Acharya and all of Mary’s nurses served as her medical team at first and over the years, have become dear friends and loyal supporters.
‘Take care of my girl’
Mary’s mom also provided wonderful support. The day Mary received her diagnosis, her mom and step-father immediately got on a plane and came to be with her. Later, when treatments left Mary bald, she got to have a great bonding experience with her mom.
“She came up behind me and touched the back of my bald head and said, ‘There’s that birth mark you had when you were a baby.’ Nobody had seen it for 48 years. We were 48 and 74 at the time. It’s been pretty intense. There have been a lot of gifts,” Mary said.
Tragically, seven years after Mary’s diagnosis, her mom also learned she had breast cancer. Mary felt that her mom had not received the best care in Delaware and urged her to come see Acharya, which her mom did.
“Dr. Acharya looked over her records, but it was too late. She had to tell my mother that she only had a few weeks left to live.”
Mary’s mom had a simple message for Acharya: “Just take care of my girl.”
And so she has.
Providers who ‘honor’ their patients
Mary says the loving care she has received has meant everything to her.
“It’s so important. You always hear that nurses are angels. That’s true. The amount of security I feel, the comfort that I feel, you can’t put a price tag on it. I do feel that it’s the reason for my success. Everything starts with your caregivers and how attentive they are, how professional they are and how warm they are,” Mary said.
The new Cherry Creek Medical Center feels much more like a warm hotel than a sterile hospital. A fireplace greets patients at the front door and there’s wallpaper and colorful art hanging throughout the building. The atmosphere aims to soothe people when they might be going through tough health challenges.
That makes a huge difference.
“I really do feel like the No. 1 patient,” Mary said. “They honor me as a patient and what more do we want than to be honored?”
She’s also grateful for the life-saving medications she has taken over the years.
“So much of it was experimental. These drugs weren’t even around before. If I had been diagnosed 25 years ago instead of 14 years ago, I wouldn’t be around. To be part of drug regimens that are working is amazing,” she said.
Mary’s experience as a breast cancer survivor has taught her that life is a precious gift.
“And, I don’t take it for granted.”