Young and healthy, Louisa Drouet never expected she’d have to deal with breast cancer.
But, when she faced an aggressive form of the disease at just 46, she refused to let it defeat her.
And now that she’s months out from her last chemotherapy and radiation treatments in May and June, the travel and yoga buff is feeding her soul with a trip she’s jokingly calling her “World Victory Tour.”
Drouet is seeing friends who supported her in far-flung places from Seoul to Shanghai, Mumbai and Paris.
“If you’re going to go through breast cancer, you might as well have some fun stuff afterwards,” Drouet said. “There is a ginormous world out there and I’ve never been one to sit still. I’m so excited. I get to meet all these new people and do this trip because I’m alive.”
Along with seeing amazing places, Drouet looks forward to striking some unique yoga poses.
“I picture myself doing yoga moves in front of the Taj Mahal,” Drouet said.
“I firmly believe that no matter how bad things get, there’s always, always good that can come from it. Some people look at their experiences as a glass that’s half empty.
“I look at mine as overflowing,” Drouet said.
Once Drouet returns from her trip this fall, the former broadcast journalist, who now owns a marketing business in Durango, plans to start a motivational clothing brand and speaking business.
“I want to be able to give back and help as many women as I can. Every single breast cancer story has its own dynamics. We’re all terrified and think, ‘what the heck has happened?’”
‘Hardest thing I’ve done in my life’
Drouet has been through some major challenges in her life, including abuse that she speaks about publicly to support other survivors. Then came her cancer diagnosis. She found the golf-ball sized tumor in her left breast last November and got surgery quickly. She then had to face chemotherapy treatment that she dreaded even though she knew it was essential.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Drouet, who has run marathons and endured months of rehab after blowing out her ACL on the ski slopes.
In spite of the physical and mental challenges of chemotherapy and wearing icy caps that cooled her head to minus 38 Celsius so she could keep most of her hair, Drouet adores her team at the UCHealth Diane O’Connor Thompson Breast Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Finding a dedicated young women’s breast cancer center
Drouet found the lump in her breast back on Nov. 30. She was going to sleep when her hand brushed across her left breast and she felt what she instantly knew was a tumor.
“I sat up and the room spun and then came to a hard stop,” she said. “I immediately knew what it was, but you’re in a state of shock and denial.”
She received instant support that night from her partner, Jake, and a friend whom she texted. The next day, Drouet sought help from her primary care doctor and a breast center at the hospital in Durango. She consulted with a general surgeon there, but was concerned when she learned that he only does about a dozen breast cancer surgeries a year.
He also suggested that she should get a double mastectomy, which led her to consider getting treatment elsewhere.
Drouet’s sister helped her find a team of pros at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital: Dr. Elena Shagisultanova, Dr. Nicole Kounalakis and Dr. Rachel Rabinovitch. These doctors are part of the hospital’s dedicated Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program.
It’s rare for cancer centers to have special programs for women coping with breast cancer when they’re in their 40s or younger. Young women comprise only about 11 percent of new cancer diagnoses each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because most women with breast cancer are in their 60s or 70s, young women can feel isolated and even more frightened when they receive a breast cancer diagnosis. Only a handful of academic medical centers around the country have a dedicated young women’s breast cancer center like the one at UCHealth.
When Drouet met with her team, she immediately found sensitive, compassionate doctors and caregivers who acted fast to provide treatment tailored to Drouet’s unique situation.
‘Am I going to die?’
Back in Durango, Drouet remembers shaking as ultrasounds confirmed that the suspicious lump in her breast was probably cancerous.
“Am I going to die?” she asked her technician.
“No, you’re not,” the woman told her.
Drouet now knows that it’s typical for women — especially young women — to be terrified when they first get a cancer diagnosis. Then some go into shock and feel completely lost with no idea of what to do next.
Drouet felt that way at first. That’s when her sister jumped into action, began researching online and found the Diane O’Connor Thompson Center.
From Drouet’s first phone call with nurse navigator Brandi Welker at the center, she knew she had found the right team. The nurse was knowledgeable and caring and arranged for her to come in for her first appointment within days.
“I started crying. I thought, ‘I’m finally talking to people who know what they’re doing,’” Drouet said. “They were going to take care of me and be kind to me.”
Breast cancer more aggressive in young women
Breast cancer in young women typically is more aggressive and thus more dangerous than cancer in older women.
In Drouet’s case, her tumor showed signs that it was growing fast and beginning to spread.
“I had an over-achieving tumor,” Drouet said, illustrating her wry sense of humor.
Doctors also found evidence that her cancer had begun spreading to her lymph nodes, which meant she would need chemotherapy.
While surgery didn’t scare Drouet, the thought of losing her hair and feeling terrible during chemotherapy caused her significant angst. So she opted to go through surgery first. Back in Durango, the general surgeon had recommended removing both of Drouet’s breasts. But, her UCHealth surgeon, Dr. Kounalakis, opted for a more conservative treatment that she felt would provide just as much protection against a recurrence: a lumpectomy on the affected breast only. By doing the lumpectomy, Kounalakis was able to save Drouet’s entire right breast and part of her left breast, including her nipple.
Drouet decided to enjoy the holidays, then scheduled her surgery following New Year’s.
The surgery went well. Drouet described it as “a cakewalk,” easier than an earlier knee surgery. Unfortunately, pathologists did confirm that the cancer had spread to Drouet’s lymph nodes, which meant she definitely had to have chemotherapy to increase her chances for cure. Fortunately, Drouet had found her cancer relatively early, and it did not spread any further. The goal of chemotherapy in her case was to prevent cancer from coming back and to kill isolated cancer cells that could have been hiding in the lymphatic vessels or possibly elsewhere in the body.
The next challenge began when Drouet faced her biggest fear.
The toughest part: chemotherapy
“I know it should not be my first concern, but I simply did not want to lose my hair,” Drouet said.
She had spent years as a television anchor and reporter. (Click here to see some of Drouet’s news clips and click here to see a previous story about Drouet.) She loved her hair. And she’s a runner and yoga buff, who loves feeling and looking healthy.
“I didn’t want to lose my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. I didn’t want to shave my head. I didn’t want people to think I was sick but I wanted to live,” Drouet said.
Her hematology and oncology specialist, Dr. Shagisultanova, understood and honored Drouet’s desire to keep looking and feeling like herself as much as possible during the chemotherapy.
“For many women, it’s devastating to look different. Hair loss provides such a negative impact on self-confidence and overall sense of well-being. We think keeping your hair significantly improves the experience of chemotherapy,” Shagisultanova said.
“Breast cancer patients have enough on their plates already without losing their hair. We always support cooling therapies,” she said.
Drouet opted for a cold cap called a Penguin. Using it was tough, but icy treatments coinciding with chemotherapy helped her keep her hair.
“She looked as if she had not been on chemotherapy,” Shagisultanova said.
Young women’s cancer: ‘the stakes are high’
Shagisultanova prides herself on listening closely to each patient and working with her team to design custom, individualized treatment plans. She’s hands-on and gets to know each patient. Since Drouet was new to University of Colorado Hospital and Shagisultanova wanted to be sure she could find the infusion center for her first chemotherapy treatment, she followed along to give a warm handoff.
She instructs all her patients to call her Dr. Nova since her name is long and tough to pronounce. She uses both proven, traditional treatments and the newest clinical trials to get the best possible outcomes.
“My goal is to give them the best possible chances that the cancer will never come back,” she said.
And with young women, the team offers care suited to them.
“Our program is fairly unique,” Shagisultanova said. “In young women, the stakes are high. They have a higher risk of disease recurrence (meaning that cancer comes back). We want to do everything medically possible to keep them cancer-free, so they’ll have years and years of life ahead of them.”
Once breast cancer begins spreading to lymph nodes, it’s a clear sign that the cancer is aggressive.
“The lymph nodes are full of immune cells called lymphocytes that are supposed to recognize and kill the cancer cells,” Shagisultanova. “If cancer cells can survive and grow in the lymph nodes, it tells us that the cancer is capable of spreading further and overcoming the body’s defenses.”
For cases like this, chemotherapy can reduce the chances of a cancer recurrence approximately by half, Shagisultanova said.
Since the chemotherapy was essential, Shagisultanova did her best to decrease Drouet’s stress and help her get through the treatments as painlessly as possible.
“The goal is to give full doses of chemotherapy and stay on schedule to maximize the chances for cure. So I will support the patient as much as necessary to complete the program,” she said.
Goal for young women, and all others: keeping cancer away forever
One of the newest discoveries is that it’s great to keep exercising during chemotherapy, Shagisultanova said.
Infusions typically make people feel exhausted.
“It’s a chemical-induced fatigue,” Shagisultanova said.
But sleep doesn’t really help.
“It’s very counterintuitive, but walking and moving helps more than rest,” she said.
Drouet took her doctor’s advice and did her best to push herself out the door, even for simple walks.
In all, Drouet endured eight chemotherapy treatments spread out every other week over 16 weeks.
Shagisultanova said Drouet is doing great.
“I am optimistic. No oncologist can guarantee a 100 percent cure. But we are striving to give people a very good chance of being cured: in the range of 90 percent,” she said.
A new niche helping other women
During a recent checkup, Drouet received a clean bill of health.
She knows she went through a tremendously taxing experience, so it will take her body and mind more time to recover fully.
The greatest relief now is that she no longer feels the overwhelming fear that gripped her a year ago.
“My stress level has gone way down,” Drouet said.
Counseling others with cancer has become a great way for Drouet to recover herself.
“Since I’m such a highly sensitive person and so emotional, I can relate to a lot of people who have various reactions to being diagnosed,” Drouet said.
“They see me as an inspiration and someone who is not afraid to talk about women and breast cancer.”
“I have found a niche to help women move through this. I feel so lucky,” she said.
During her cancer journey, there were certainly times when Drouet wanted to give up or hide in bed with her beloved dog, Bella.
But she forced herself to gather her strength and get up and fight.
In so doing, she’s found entirely new aspects of life.
“Of course, nobody wants to get cancer. But, if you’re going to get any life-threatening illness, you need to find the bright light in it. I don’t regret this happening. I wouldn’t purposely choose it. But, if I can find an inspiring path, through which I can help others, then, in a way, this has been a gift.”