Three Breast Cancer Survivors Tell Their Stories
Many breast cancer patients share similar stories, but there is always something about each patient’s story that is unique. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are the profiles of three women who are long-time patients of radiologist Nilza Kallos, M.D., Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s director of women’s imaging at The Lennar Foundation Medical Center.
The three, who range in age from 57 to 71, were diagnosed with three different types of cancer, but all at early stages, enabling them to undergo breast-sparing lumpectomies. Their stories point out the importance of both self-examinations and annual mammograms. One patient just began her cancer journey, but the other two, whose treatments were more than five years ago, are now considered cured. When they posed for photographs in the Lennar Center lobby, their mood was jubilant. As one said: “Life doesn’t stop with breast cancer.”
“Do you believe in angels?”
It is not a question a doctor normally asks a patient, but what had preceded it had not been a normal breast-imaging experience. Kallos was giving Gayle Dubin, now 57, her annual mammogram, and … something … appeared on the screen. And then it went away. This happened several times. Dubin had always had normal mammograms in the past, but Kallos sensed that there had been a change, so she kept looking.
“It was like there was a voice telling me not to give up,” said Kallos.
She tried another view, and then another, until the elusive unknown finally was captured on the screen. It was a tubular carcinoma, a subtype of invasive ductal carcinoma that begins inside the breast’s milk duct and spreads to healthy tissue. They tend to be very small (1 cm. or less), slow-growing, and look like healthy cells. At one time they were thought to be the cause of 1 to 4 percent of breast cancers, but studies report that due to improvements in imaging technology — these tumors can be seen long before they can be felt — they are now thought to be responsible for anywhere from 8 percent to possibly as much as 27 percent of breast cancers. They also most commonly appear in women in their early 50s.
Dubin, then 49 (the year was 2009), fit the pattern almost perfectly. Like Kallos, she also had felt a third presence in the examination room.
“We both believe it was my younger sister,” Dubin said. “I had lost her the year before to a car accident. It was a terrible shock, and I feel like the stress of being sad all the time weakened my immune system. I believe my sister’s spirit was pushing Dr. Kallos to find the tumor and save my life.”
Dubin underwent a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation overseen by Joyce M. Slingerland, M.D., Ph.D., director of Sylvester’s Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute, and Cristiane Takita, M.D., M.B.A., co-leader of the Breast Site Disease Group.
“My entire care team was wonderful, and they made all the difference in my successful recovery,” said Dubin.
Today, although she takes tamoxifen to help prevent a recurrence, she is cancer-free and considered cured.
Leah Kinnaird, Ed.D., B.S.N., RN, also had an early finding followed by a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. A nurse who is now retiring after working with Sylvester, University of Miami Hospital, Jackson Health System and other Miami medical institutions since 1971, she also had worked with Kallos, in mammography screening programs. None of that experience, however, prepared her for being a patient instead of a care provider.
“I really had a hard time believing it,” said Kinnaird, 71, who was diagnosed in 2008 at 62 after finding a lump during a self-examination. “I’m a regular runner and swimmer, and as a nurse I have been active in promoting health education and fitness programs. I was planning to live to be 100. After my diagnosis, that all changed. I learned that I had triple-negative breast cancer, which tends to be very aggressive. I also had a second tumor, which was the one I felt in my self-exam. I remember thinking, ‘If I can just live three more years.’”
Kallos wasn’t having any of it.
“She said to me, ‘This is not going to kill you, but it is now the priority of your life.’ It didn’t matter that I was busy with work and traveling. Early diagnosis makes all the difference, and I needed to begin treatment right away,” said Kinnaird.
Nine years later, Kinnaird is considered a survivor, but she dislikes the word and instead refers to herself as a “beyonder.”
“I talk about getting beyond cancer,” she said. “When I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t even say the word ‘cancer;’ instead I referred to it as ‘my situation.’”
Kinnaird credits her outstanding medical care, a strong religious faith and the unwavering support of her family and friends with her recovery. Still, she is no longer waiting to live to be 100. Instead, she is filling her life with new experiences, such as rowing with other breast cancer survivors on the Save Our Sisters Miami dragon boat team.
“Life doesn’t stop with breast cancer,” she said.
Daysi Alfonso, 59, is at the early stages of the journey Dubin and Kinnaird have both completed. She arrived for her annual mammogram on July 31 and left with Kallos having found a stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma in one of her breasts.
“It was deep and very small,” said Alfonso, “and nothing I could have found through a self-exam. Dr. Kallos has you act quickly, and I had an appointment with a surgeon, Dr. Kesmodel, the next day.”
Susan B. Kesmodel, M.D., performed a lumpectomy at the Lennar Center, a facility Alfonso describes as “gorgeous” and “fantastic,” on August 24. Now that the tumor has been removed, Alfonso is undergoing six weeks of radiation treatments with Anesa W. Ahamad, M.D., that began on October 25. Meanwhile, she is under the watchful eye of oncologist Lawrence Negret, M.D.
“My whole Sylvester team has been wonderful,” said Alfonso, “but I have to give special thanks to Dr. Kallos for finding the tumor and for how she dealt with me. She’s an extraordinary person, and healing exudes from her. Some people have that special gift.”
“Certain breast tumors can only be found through imaging,” said Kallos, “but self-examination is very important. When a woman knows her breasts and finds a change, that is significant, and she needs to follow up with an examination by her doctor.
“At Lennar, we practice integrated breast care. Some of our patients have been with us for as long as 35 years, and we have become the primary care physicians of their breasts. The foundation of that care is the annual mammogram, because mammograms save lives. There are many women at high risk, and we want to take care of them. Saving a woman’s life — that is my passion.”