Originally from Libertyville, Illinois, Mary Ann Holoska now resides in Venice.
When were you diagnosed?
I was diagnosed in June of 2010 with triple negative breast cancer stage III in the right breast and in March of 2015 with lobular cancer stage II in the left breast.
What kind of treatment did you receive?
I was proactive in receiving the best medical care I could. I got a second opinion at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas. Anderson has expertise in treating breast cancer and using clinical trials. I stayed at Anderson.
I was in the control group of a clinical trial. The treatment at the time was neoadjuvant (chemotherapy before surgery). It consisted of 12 weeks at once a week of paclitaxel. Then I received once a week of 5-flouracil, epirubicin and cyclophosphamide. After this, I had a mammogram and ultrasound which showed that the breast cancer was almost gone but that I still had five lymph nodes that had cancer, I had surgery to remove my right breast and 33 nymph nodes.Then I had 33 rounds of daily targeted radiation.
Because I had cancer in my lymph nodes after chemo, I qualified for another clinical trial. Because I was in the control group again, I decided not to participate in this trial.
My second cancer was not discovered through a mammogram or exam. I insisted on an MRI from my M.D. in Florida because I have dense breasts which do not show tumors well on any type of mammogram. Back at Anderson I asked for a total breast removal of my left breast, rather than a lumpectomy. Through a blood test, it was shown that I have less than a 50 percent chance of reoccurrence of this cancer and I will be taking an estrogen inhibitor for five years.
Did you face any obstacles?
Triple negative breast cancer does not need estrogen, progesterone or HER2 to grow. So, there was no pill to take after treatment to give me the assurance that I'm lowering my risk of recurrence.
Since my treatment, there has been research on checkpoint inhibitors, given with chemotherapy. These cause the immune system to become more active and recognize and attack cancer. Genomic therapy research could lead to targeted therapies for triple negative breast cancer.
What was the most challenging part of your experience?
The most challenging part of my treatment was to stay hopeful during the 10 months of treatment. I was able to draw on religious faith and received support from the Anderson community and a church based near the hospital. I also had friends and family praying for me.
How has the experience affected your relationship with friends and family?
I think you find out who your true friends and family are during a crisis.
How has this experience changed you? What have you learned about yourself?
I think I learned how to think about one day at a time and not worry about tomorrow. When I get up, I say to myself: I'm alive.
What advice would you share with others?
I would say if you have dense breasts, get an MRI. Also, every cancer is different. So, don't be obsessed by the statistics of your cancer. If you have breast cancer, I would urge getting a BRCA test to see if there are any hereditary links.