NEW YORK (WABC) -- 3 Decades, 3 Cancers
A Reporter's Notebook
By Stacey Sager
This is by far the most difficult and personal story of my career -- a story that began a quarter of a century ago and appeared to be a complete success. It was 1998, and a mammogram saved my life.
I was a rookie reporter at Eyewitness News and decided that the lesson from that was too important not to share with our viewers. And so at age 30, I apprehensively sat in the studio with Bill Beutel and Diana Williams and explained through interviews with my doctors, how tiny micro calcifications spotted in an area on the side of my left breast turned out to be a stage zero breast cancer known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
I had a huge family history but had not yet had the genetic test for the BRCA mutation. It was just emerging as an option. I had a bilateral mastectomy because my mother had died so young from breast cancer. I then moved on with my life.
Women came up to me on the street, thanked me, and told me they decided to get mammograms, too, because they saw how I was able to detect my breast cancer so early and put it behind me. Hopefully, we saved some lives.
Fast forward to 13 years later. It was 2011, and I was approaching 44 -- the age my mother had died. I had just had both my daughters and decided upon the urging of my doctors and my sister (she tested negative for BRCA), that it was time to figure out if I had the mutation. Not surprisingly, I tested positive for BCRA1.
I went in for what was supposed to be a prophylactic oophorectomy to remove my tubes and ovaries, but doctors discovered I already had early-stage ovarian cancer in both of my fallopian tubes. It was so early, my ovaries were still clean. They went back in for a staging operation, and did a full hysterectomy, removing my uterus, and some lymph nodes, and tested tissue in my peritoneal cavity, and all other tissue was negative. I was initially told to do chemo but upon getting multiple opinions, one particularly brilliant doctor who didn't think chemo was necessary, advised me to "save that bullet", adding that "there are many years for these cancers to come back."
Now those words replay in my head nearly every day.
And so, I did a story on the importance of genetic testing. I had saved my own life a second time. Once again, viewers reached out to say they got lifesaving genetic testing. Hopefully, we saved some more lives.
Meanwhile, I lived MY life. I raised my kids, worked hard, gardened, traveled, and enjoyed each day of healthy living - for 25 years. At some point many, MANY months ago, I felt discomfort on the side of my right breast when I slept at night. I assumed it was my old implants but I must admit, it haunted me. But why? I was told by my breast surgeon 25 years ago, "You're all good", and no screenings were even necessary. But then, in July, that discomfort blew up into real pain and it was a pain I could no longer ignore.
What proceeded to happen is something that happens to many of us. There was a long wait to get in and see the surgeon. I was told to wait till Sept. 26. I was taking Advil every night for the pain. In August I had a slow day and called my internist and said, "I can't wait with this pain any longer." She urged me to get a sonogram right away. And on Sept. 11, there I was, alone on the table, watching the cancerous mass appear on the screen within minutes. I assembled a completely new team of doctors and began my third cancer journey.
As reporters, we sometimes cover the most painful stories and try to find the takeaway for our viewers. I repeatedly asked my doctors, "What is the lesson here?" Perhaps, this was so I wouldn't think that this was a story of how terrible things only happen to me. I mean surely I am not the only BRCA woman, or high-risk person, who feels "hunted" by this beast.
'Three Decades, Three Cancers' is my story of advocacy, survival, and hopefully, a story of how I have saved my own life a third time. Perhaps more importantly, it is a story of what to think about in YOUR decades of cancer survival - that is, the importance of advocacy, which should be in our DNA just as much as these awful variants and mutations.
It is a story of how we need to get to know our NEW breasts because nothing is a sure thing. It is a story of how we should follow our gut if we have pain or don't feel okay... guess what? We probably aren't! I tell this story not to scare people because my case is quite rare (an estimated chance of 1-2 percent), but the reality is, that more and more high-risk women are living longer and longer after having surgery or preventive surgery for breast cancer. So this number of secondary cancers may go up.
Doctors are also pushing the envelope cosmetically. While all of this is good, if you are at high risk, you need to ask the obvious question - "Is the shared goal to spot all the breast tissue and get as close to 100% out of me as possible?". It should be.
I have much to say about all of this, and I hope that one day soon, we will have a vaccine that may even protect us from breast cancer and BRCA mutations. But for now, I hope you watch my journey and know that I am fighting hard -- for my own life -- but also, for yours. Thank you in advance for all your love and support!
In Good Health,
Stacey sat down with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America to share her story and urge others to prioritize their health.
I sat down with my breast surgeon, Dr. Elisa Port of Mount Sinai, about the mass and the 6 lymph nodes she removed during my surgery, and the complexities of triple-negative breast cancer.
"What's interesting is that, with triple negative, believe it or not, even though it is more aggressive and we typically associate lymph node spread with more aggressive, you don't see a lot of lymph node spread with triple negative, so that can be a tricky thing," said Dr. Port.
Mount Sinai Breast Surgeon, Dr. Christina Weltz went back decades within the institution of Mount Sinai, to research the number of secondary cases of breast cancer in women who had mastectomies.
"I'm looking at new breast cancers that develop after a mastectomy, that are arising in what we call retained breast tissue," said Dr. Weltz. "And what I mean by that, is that the mastectomy did not remove all of the breast tissue."
Dr. Weltz explained that the phenomenon is relatively uncommon.
I sat down with my oncologist, Dr. Hanna Irie, and we discussed the challenges of triple-negative breast cancer, but also the promise of newer agents, including immunotherapy.
"We can also subtype triple negative cancers in a better way so that we can offer targeted therapies in a more efficient manner", said Dr. Irie.
We then discussed her hope for a vaccine, particularly for triple-negative disease.
Dr. Domchek has played a critical role in scientific research into a vaccine for BRCA, and other targeted therapies.
She is someone I've known for a long time, and I depended upon her advice greatly after learning my diagnosis.
I spoke to her about how pressing it is for patients like me, who have children coming of age who could inherit the BRCA mutation.
In my BRCA community, there are so many stories of both loss and success.
Helene Sorin is someone I depended upon during my journey, and I hope you will take the time to hear about her journey.
While no two cancers are ever the same, Helene has a BRCA1 mutation and a story quite similar to mine.
She, too, had 2 cases of breast cancer. My cases were 25 years apart, and Helene's were 13 years apart.
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