You might think a mother of three children under age six – and pregnant with a fourth child – might be too busy or even exhausted to notice a small area of swelling under her arm. But Monica Patrick knew something wasn't right. And when pain shot through her arm she began a medical quest that led to a frightening diagnosis several months later.
Here's Her Full Story
While blissfully enjoying the newest addition to her family—a 7-month-old baby boy—doctors onfirmed that she was sick. Very sick.
The diagnosis: stage IV breast cancer. By the time the disease was found in her breast, it had traveled to her lymph nodes and other parts of her body.
"I have a strong faith in Christ. I'm not afraid to die, but I couldn't imagine not raising my babies," admits the cancer patient who was mom to a 6, 4 and 3-year-old, in addition to the baby boy, at the time of her diagnosis in 2013.
Thanks to advanced medicines and quality care provided by Texas Oncology doctors and nurses, and her abiding faith in Jesus, the 45-year-old Fort Worth resident is looking forward to the future with hope and optimism. After treatment, while not in remission, there is no evidence of disease in her body.
"It's been four years and we have a new normal," says Monica describing her family life with husband, Charles. "Our kids were so young at the time, they don't remember life before cancer."
Following lymph node swelling and arm pain, Monica noticed a sizable lump in her breast. Because she was breastfeeding, an ultrasound initially indicated a plugged milk duct. But after visiting with a breast surgeon, a biopsy was ordered.
The pathologist reported a finding of "triple positive" invasive ductal carcinoma. Monica's cancer cells were multiplying in response to estrogen, progesterone and HER-2—a human epidermal growth protein.
At the same time that Monica was undergoing tests, her younger sister was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. The family had no history of the disease and both sisters later tested negative for the BRCA gene mutations and other genetic markers linked to breast cancer risk.
"Initially, I thought we would share this fight, tackling it together," Monica says remembering her reaction to the news. That changed a week later when Texas Oncology medical oncologist, Dr. Chi Pham, called with the results of a PET scan. The words, "Monica, it's not good," echoed in the young mother's ears.
"The doctor proceeded to tell me the cancer had metastasized to my spine, pelvis and other places," she continues. "I was devastated. My husband was a cancer researcher in Houston before we moved to Fort Worth, so we were very aware of the gravity of the situation."
A mastectomy wasn't considered because the cancer had spread beyond the breast.
"When we first went to Texas Oncology and met Dr. Pham, she told us it was aggressive," Monica explains. "But she said 'It doesn't matter. We're going to fight this.'"
AN AGGRESSIVE TREATMENT PLAN
Monica received six treatments of chemotherapy with taxotere, a chemotherapy drug that helps destroy cancer cells when they are dividing, along with the antibodies Herceptin and Perjeta to target the HER-2.
"HER-2 positive breast cancer is very aggressive and 10 to 15 years ago, women just died," Monica says matter-of-factly. "Herceptin went through all the testing and trials and was shown to be very effective in helping control the cancer. Perjeta was approved shortly before I was diagnosed."
Studies indicate the drugs, combined with chemotherapy, improve survival rates.
"I'm super thankful," Monica says. "We really don't know how long people can live, but we know there's hope."
Her treatment plan included Zometa—an osteoporosis drug that helped regrow the bones in her pelvis and spine.
Because her cancer was so reliant on estrogen to grow, Monica also underwent a robotic total hysterectomy and removal of her tubes and ovaries at the hands of Texas Oncology gynecologic oncologist Dr. Noelle Cloven—to remove the source of estrogen. She currently takes Letrozole, an estrogen blocker, in addition to regularly receiving Herceptin and Perjeta infusions.
SUPPORT FROM HER CARE TEAM
Monica's trips to Texas Oncology are routine with infusions every three weeks.
"After four years, I've gotten to know people," Monica says. "Dr. Pham and I talk about our families and the nurses are filled with such grace, kindness and humor."
Their expertise in caring for cancer patients became obvious during her first chemotherapy treatment. After the infusion began, Monica felt her body reacting to the powerful drug.
"I started shaking, crying and felt as if I was freezing, and they took care of me in such a kind and loving way," she remembers. "Being an oncology nurse is a tough job and they do it so well at Texas Oncology."
ADJUSTING TO A NEW NORMAL
Monica never experienced another reaction and the side effects of her treatments are minimal, but life in the Patrick home is different. "We know the week of infusion is going to be slower, so we plan accordingly," says the busy mom who homeschools her children. "We read more books, we watch more stories and we eat more cereal."
Because Monica receives treatment at Texas Oncology, a community-based practice, she's able to be home and close to family during treatment. But she still needs a support system.
Her parents, who live in the Panhandle, visit every three weeks to help. She also receives support from a wide network of friends who have chosen to walk alongside the Patricks on this journey.
"They have brought meals, watched our kids, given money to help with medical costs and continue to pray," Monica says.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
Asking others for help is difficult but necessary, she advises the newly diagnosed.
"Be honest with people about your struggles. I think we have to share when we have a need and ask someone to run to the grocery store or just sit and listen as we cry."
Having an advocate who will go to doctor appointments with the patient is important.
"When you start going through this, it's like a fire hose— there's so much information coming at you. A patient needs someone who will listen and remind them what was said. All I remember hearing is, 'a few people make it to five years.'"
"Cancer is a huge part of our lives, but it doesn't define us," she says emphatically. "My story is one of great hope. It's a sweet story to tell. Maybe it's not the one I would have chosen, but it's still a sweet story."