Three generations of breast cancer

March 8, 2019

Suzanne Stevenson is a young woman who has a passion for cars and racing. She works at an auto parts store and knows the specs and performance of all things cars, from catalytic converters to windshield wipers.

She’s also fervent about another topic: the need for women to get a yearly mammogram.

“I’d shout it from the rooftops if I could, that’s how important it is to me,’’ she said.

Family history

The reason she’s such a spark plug about it all? Stevenson, 42, comes from a family with a long history of cancer. Her grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer six months later. And on Aug. 1, Stevenson got a breast cancer diagnosis.

Suzie Stevenson with her mother and grandmother.
Suzie Stevenson, pictured on the lower right, is the third generation in her family to have breast cancer. Photo courtesy of Suzie Stevenson.

Stevenson recalls driving home from her job at Napa Auto Parts and asking the nurse practitioner from her doctor’s office: “Should I pull over?’’

Yes, he said, and advised her to go to UCHealth Memorial Hospital, home of the Mary Lou Beshears Breast Care Clinic – Printers Park. That meant she would be seen by the same doctors – Dr. Ingrid Sharon, a breast surgeon; and Dr. Jane Ridings, a radiation oncologist – who treated her mother and grandmother. Dr. Sharon and Dr. Ridings have worked together for nearly 23 years.

After getting her diagnosis, Stevenson called both of her brothers and told them the news. Telling her 16-year-old niece, though, was one of the hardest things she had done. The two are “peas and carrots,’’ Stevenson said. With such a lineage of cancer in the family, the conversation was immensely personal and advisory.

Less than a month after she received the official diagnosis of breast cancer, Dr. Sharon performed a lumpectomy, removing the known cancer.

“Dr. Sharon is wonderful. She’s so soft-spoken and she has terrific fashion sense! She is very comforting. She’s got the mom touch, and you know that she really cares about you,’’ she said.

In the waiting room outside the outpatient surgery center at Printers Park Medical Plaza, Stevenson’s boyfriend and her mother met for the first time and both waited anxiously for news.

“I’ve had other relationships, and I always introduced them right away. I decided to do this one differently, and I had not introduced them yet,’’ she said. “They liked each other.’’

When the two learned that the lumpectomy surgery to remove her tumor went very well, the two reveled in the good news.

Radiation therapy

Next, Stevenson was on to radiation therapy and in the hands of Dr. Jane Ridings, a radiation oncologist. Every day for four weeks, Stevenson had radiation therapy at UCHealth Cancer Center – Memorial Hospital Central.

“I recommended that Suzie receive radiation therapy to her breast after Dr. Sharon performed a lumpectomy to remove the known cancer,’’ Dr. Ridings said. “Radiation kills cancer cells that might remain in the breast after surgery, markedly reducing the chance of the cancer returning while allowing Suzie, and others like her, to save her breast. Survival rates for breast conservation treatment (with lumpectomy and radiation) are exactly as high as those with mastectomy.’’

Stevenson said radiation is difficult to go through. ““That’s pretty gnarly. But everyone makes you feel better. My radiology techs, we talked about cars and racing.’’

Stevenson described Dr. Ridings as overwhelmingly capable. “She’s matter-of-fact but comforting. She’s a very nice lady.’’

A photo of Dr. Ingrid Sharon
Dr. Ingrid Sharon

Dr. Ridings said she has treated parents and children, husbands and wives, though she doesn’t recall treating three generations of the same family.

“It is a huge honor when I’m asked to see the family members of a patient I’ve treated, as this is almost never a coincidence,’’ Dr. Ridings said. “Knowing a patient was happy enough with my care to then recommend me to their loved one is extremely validating.’’

Stevenson said one of the things that she liked about Dr. Sharon and Dr. Ridings is they spent time talking to her about her condition – and listening.

“I never had any questions when I left, they were so thorough. The whole staff was wonderful,’’ Stevenson said.

Patients first

Dr. Sharon said the entire team devotes itself to trying to always do what matters for patients.

“I think patients pick up on the fact that my colleagues and I hope with them, anguish with them, and process through results and options with them,’’ Dr. Sharon said. She said physicians are thrilled when they see patients thrive again.

She said the patients that she sees are “amazing women,’’ who often have overcome other adversities in their lives with grace and strength.’’

“They are models for how to live life well, independent of circumstances. It is they who are to be applauded,’’ Dr. Sharon said.

A photo of Dr. Jane Ridings
Dr. Jane Ridings

Sadly, Stevenson’s grandmother passed away earlier in 2018 of causes unrelated to breast cancer. Her mom is doing well. The mother and daughter, however, have two different types of breast cancer. Stevenson has Her 2 Negative cancer and her mother had Her 2 Positive cancer.

Doctors have prescribed Tamoxifen and asked Stevenson to take it for five years. The drug is intended to reduce the risk of cancer coming back.

“I haven’t had any problems,’’ she said.

Singing from the rooftops

Meanwhile, she’s talking to everyone about getting a mammogram. According to the American College of Radiology website: Mammography plays a central part in early detection of breast cancers because it can show changes in the breast up to two years before a patient or physician can feel them. Current guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the American College of Radiology (ACR) recommend screening mammography every year for women, beginning at age 40. Research has shown that annual mammograms lead to early detection of breast cancers, when they are most curable and breast-conservation therapies are available.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) adds that women who have had breast cancer, and those who are at increased risk due to a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, should seek expert medical advice about whether they should begin screening before age 40 and the need for other types of screening.

For Stevenson, the mammogram and her treatment at Memorial brought her peace of mind.

“I feel like it was a six-month blip and I’m moving forward with my life. I I’m doing fine,’’ Stevenson said. “The staff that treated me, they addressed my concerns and made me feel confident. I don’t want to go through it again, but I’d ask for the same people if I had to.’’

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.