Time was of the essence on that early morning in 2007 when Margarita Vacanti first recognized she had symptoms of breast cancer.
Breast cancer ran in Vacanti’s family. Her grandmother and mother were both diagnosed with the disease. (Family history is one of the key risk factors for breast cancer.) She expected it was only a matter of time before she would receive a similar diagnosis.
It took no longer than a few hours for Vacanti, to make an appointment with a nurse practitioner at Kaiser Permanente, undergo a mammogram and schedule additional diagnostic tests.
“Learning that I had breast cancer was life shattering,” she recalls. “It didn’t matter that I had seen other family members face the disease. This time, I was going through it. I had kids and a family to think about. I knew being diagnosed as a young 34-year-old woman, it was probably going to be a more aggressive case.”
Not a one-size-fits-all disease
More than 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all disease. Recent statistics from the American Cancer Society reveal less than 5 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in women younger than 40 years old.
Evidence also suggests that breast cancers in young women tend to be more aggressive and less responsive to treatment than the cancers in older women.
Although reeling with the news of her stage 2 diagnosis, Vacanti faced some tough decisions on how to move forward with treatment. The clock was ticking.
Reassurance from the experts
Following Vacanti’s breast cancer diagnosis, a team of oncologists, surgeons and nurse practitioners quickly established a treatment plan. “It was the most reassuring thing I could get at that point,” Vacanti says.
Kaiser Permanente Colorado breast cancer surgeon, Joyce Haun, MD, and oncologist Catherine Azar, MD, collaborated to get Vacanti resources for family counseling, genetic testing, and breast reconstruction.
By the time they scheduled their first appointment, Dr. Azar had registered Vacanti for a clinical trial, and selected a chemotherapy regimen best suited for her type of breast cancer. “For the first time, I felt like I could deal with my cancer personally because the medical situation was covered,” Vacanti recalls. “Coping with the diagnosis wasn’t something I had to do alone. My family got the support we needed from counselors at Kaiser Permanente.”
Vacanti’s treatment plan was aggressive. She underwent six months of chemotherapy and a bi-lateral mastectomy, followed by an additional seven months of chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation therapy.
“At every juncture, my doctors worked in concert on my treatment plan to make sure nothing slipped through the cracks,” Vacanti says.
More than four years after the breast cancer diagnosis, Vacanti has a new outlook on life. “Having cancer absolutely changed the way I live my life,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the five-year mark when I’ll be considered 100 percent cured. Until then, I see Dr. Azar every six months. She treats me as a person; not as part of a chart and a to-do list. Words can’t express how much I appreciate that.”