Vera Conner’s cancer journey began in May 2000. She says that cancer was not something that she thought she would ever experience. While the journey was at times scary and uncertain, she survived with the love of family and friends, and the care and support of Northside Hospital staff and volunteers.
Suspecting something is wrong
Vera has had fibrocystic breasts pretty much all of her adult life, so she wasn’t completely panicked when she felt a lump in one of her breasts.
Vera’s gynecologist Dr. Michael Scott was aware of her medical history. However, when he examined Vera, he had concerns about the lump and scheduled Vera for an ultrasound.
“When I got to the Woman’s Center at Northside Hospital I was calm, not even suspecting that something serious could be wrong,” Vera said. “As the scope is moving around, an image appears on the monitor… When the technician said that she was going for the radiologist to interpret the image, I kind of knew that I was in trouble.”
Dr. Lynn Baxter, director of breast imaging at Northside, came and examined Vera; she wanted to do a needle biopsy.
“Now I was getting scared,” Vera said. Results from the biopsy would be ready in a couple of days. When the phone rang the next day, Vera was surprised to hear Dr. Baxter’s voice so soon.
“She simply said ‘Your test results came back and I am sorry, but you have cancer…’ She said a lot of other things too, but I really wasn’t hearing much of what she said at all,” Vera said. “I was numb for a bit, I guess.”
Getting a game plan
After hearing that she had cancer, Vera quickly collected herself. The next step was to find a surgeon. Dr. Baxter had provided some referrals, but Vera already knew who she would call – Dr. Iqbal Garcha.
“When I went to see [Dr. Garcha], he recognized me right away,” Vera said. She had visited Dr. Garcha for previous breast surgery. “The tears flowed then… I decided on mastectomy with reconstruction.”
Following surgery, Dr. Garcha greeted Vera with a smile and held her hand. The cancer was gone and none of the lymph nodes collected had cancer, but Vera would need to see an oncologist to determine if further treatment was needed.
After her initial diagnosis Vera said, “I called my mom first and we talked about praying and trusting in God, and everything was going to be all right.”
Throughout her diagnosis and treatment, Vera is grateful to have had the support and prayers of her family, including her mother and two sons, her friends and her church. She also found hope from unexpected sources.
“Something I remember about the hospital is that many of the staff that took care of me were breast cancer survivors – the lab technicians, some nurses, the pain management team, even the lady that brought me my food tray,” Vera said. “I thought that was a wonderful touch that the hospital took. It was so inspiring to have everyone that you came into contact with telling you that they were a survivor and many of them for many years.”
While in the hospital, Vera also received a visit from Northside’s Network of Hope, an organization of cancer survivors who support newly diagnosed individuals on their cancer journeys.
“The Network of Hope members were wonderful,” Vera said.
It was one of the Network of Hope members who referred Vera to oncologist Dr. Janice Galleshaw (now retired) with Georgia Cancer Specialists.
Dr. Galleshaw confirmed Vera’s diagnosis – stage two breast cancer that was non estrogen receptive. The cancer had not spread, however, Dr. Galleshaw suggested four rounds of chemotherapy to insure that there was no undetectable spread of the cancer. Since the cancer was not estrogen receptive, no other treatment was needed.
Vera received chemotherapy from July until October. Following her last treatment, she started breast reconstruction.
Vera continued to see an oncologist annually. In an annual exam in November 2012, another lump was discovered.
“I admit that I was afraid, but due to the great treatment and experience that I had [previously], I was more confident in my recovery again,” Vera said.
She was able to assemble the same “Dream Team.” Dr. Galleshaw had moved on to another role and Vera was now seeing Dr. Kamal Ummed.
This time Vera’s cancer was hormone-receptive positive. Because she’d had the mastectomy, she didn’t need chemotherapy, but received hormone-receptive medication instead.
Today, Vera says, “I am thriving and doing well.”
Vera also had genetic testing done. “Although I had no family history of breast cancer, I did the testing and it was determined that I did not have BRCA gene,” she said.
And Vera is giving back to the organization that gave her hope.
“I am currently a member of the Network of Hope and I have had the pleasure of assuring others while going through their processes,” Vera said. “After having two bouts of cancer (two different types), I can honestly say that I am very pleased with the service that has been provided to me through Northside Hospital and I recommend my doctors and the system to others.”
Read more about breast cancer care at Northside Hospital Cancer Institute.
*The health story shared here may portray atypical results of survival for this type of cancer, given its severity and stage. Atypical results are considered surviving a cancer that has less than a 50 percent five-year survival rate. Patients should consult an expert to discuss specific treatment plans and the possible outcomes before making medical decisions.