By Sarah Buelterman, TriHealth
When Barbie Tiemeyer of Fairfield, Ohio, visited her ob/gyn for her annual exam, she was still reeling from her daughter Emma’s breast-cancer diagnosis just two weeks earlier. Then she too got bad news.
Like her daughter, she had ductal carcinoma, a type of cancer that begins in the milk ducts of the breast.
Both mother and daughter are happily recovering now and moving ahead with their lives. They shared an experience that had a good outcome, but it wasn’t always easy.
The story began in April 2014, when Emma visited her ob/gyn for her yearly checkup. During the clinical breast exam her doctor detected a lump in her right breast. Emma was sent to a radiologist for a mammogram and a breast ultrasound.
The images suggested to the radiologist that the tumor was benign, but a biopsy proved otherwise; Emma was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ductal carcinoma. It had progressed to stage 2, which means the cancer was growing.
Emma and her doctors met to discuss a plan of action, and decided that the best course of treatment would begin with chemotherapy, followed by a bilateral mastectomy and then radiation therapy. The double mastectomy was “tough, obviously, but I accepted it, and it was my decision,” Emma said. “Especially because I was so young, I worried about getting breast cancer again, and I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent that.”
As for mom Barbie’s own diagnosis two weeks later, her ob/gyn had been following a suspicious spot on her mammograms for a year or two.
“They thought it was just calcium deposits, but I’d started to feel something right before the exam,” she said. The new mammogram raised enough concern that the doctor thought it wise to do a biopsy. When that too came back positive for ductal carcinoma, Barbie at least had the comfort of knowing that her cancer was of a less aggressive type. It was classified stage 1; it remained in situ, which means it was confined to the area where the first abnormal cells began to develop.
When cancer is found at this early stage, it can be treated very effectively.
Related: Should Younger Women Get Mammograms?
The pair agreed to try to fight their disease together with grace and humor.
Because her cancer was less aggressive, Barbie elected to have a lumpectomy, followed by 23 doses of radiation. She now takes a chemotherapy pill every day, which she reports has no side effects.
“You would never know by looking at me that I had cancer,” she said. “I work full time, and have no limits on what I can do.”
Emma’s story was different because her cancer was more aggressive and had begun to spread. Her treatment began with eight doses of chemotherapy. She claims it was “not as bad as I thought it would be.”
Her mother says that’s putting it courageously.
“She was very sick after the first four rounds,” Barbie said. “Her blood counts were very low. She lost her hair. After the next four doses she was tired a lot.”
Yet the family still managed to laugh through the pain.
“When she lost her hair, my husband would say, ‘Put a hat on!’ ” (Emma had tried a wig, but found it hot and itchy and wore it just once.)
After the chemo, Emma had her double mastectomy, followed by 32 radiation treatments. She took the cancer-fighting drug Herceptin for several months, and will take Tamoxifen for another five years. At some point she will undergo reconstruction surgery.
Curiously, even though Barbie’s mother had died from breast cancer, genetic testing for both Barbie and Emma came back negative. Barbie will continue to see her surgeon every six months and get a new mammogram every time.