October 21, 2021 by John Fernandez
Advice from a Breast Cancer Survivor: Don’t Skip Mammograms
Marlen Acosta-Garcia was diligent about having her first mammogram at age 40, as recommended. But then her health took a back seat as her law career and raising four young boys became a priority. Fast forward seven years and with her second-ever mammogram, which was followed by an ultrasound and biopsy, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Sometimes we are scared of the unknown,” she says. “But do not delay your mammogram. I was very lucky this was caught early. But, honestly, I feel that if I’d been doing my yearly mammograms, I would have found this earlier and possibly could have avoided chemotherapy.”
Lauren Carcas, M.D., a medical oncologist at the Plantation location of Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida, treated the Miami Lakes resident. “There were many years where she just kind of put herself last, which often happens when you’re a busy mom,” says Dr. Carcas. “She just didn’t realize how long it had been. She’s quite fortunate that she did go, and that it was found early. It really did save her life. It’s very important, however, to not take your chances like she did.”
A ‘Let’s Go’ attitude
Ms. Acosta-Garcia may have delayed her mammograms, but once she got the diagnosis of early-stage triple-negative breast cancer, she forged ahead with determination.
“When I think of Marlen, I think of tough,” Dr. Carcas says. “She just takes life as it’s thrown at her. She does not complain. I know she and her husband were overwhelmed, but never once did they shy away from the treatment recommendations. They were always on board.”
“From the moment the doctor told me, ‘You have cancer,’ I was like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s start,’ “says Ms. Acosta-Garcia. She and her husband, Ramon Garcia, began by giving their sons, then ages 12-24, the news. At a later doctor’s appointment, Dr. Carcas, who happens to be the mom of two boys, took it upon herself to find the Garcia boys outside and ask if they had any questions. “Who does that?” asks Ms. Acosta-Garcia. “That was so awesome. She doesn’t sugar coat the news, but she takes her time to explain everything and is very reassuring and calm.”
Ms. Acosta-Garcia began chemotherapy just weeks after her August 2019 diagnosis.
One goal of neoadjuvant chemotherapy ― chemotherapy before surgery ― is to reduce the size of the tumor, increasing the odds that all cancer cells are removed during surgery.
Ms. Acosta-Garcia, part of the faculty of Barbara Goleman Senior High’s law magnet program by the time she started treatment, kept teaching throughout chemo. “I never missed a day of work,” she says, adding that co-workers would fill in if she had to leave early for treatment and students were good about staying home if they were sick. “The flu went around, and so did COVID-19, but never came to my classroom.” She also helps her husband coach the high school volleyball team.
Because some triple-negative breast cancers are linked to gene mutations that are associated with a significant increased risk of breast cancer over a lifetime, genetic testing results help drive treatment decisions. Patients who test positive may be advised to have chemo and then a bilateral mastectomy. Ms. Acosta-Garcia’s genetic tests came back negative and, coupled with the small size of the tumor, she opted for a lumpectomy and radiation. She underwent outpatient surgery on Feb. 18, 2020, began radiation in April and completed her treatment in May of last year.
Reducing her chance of cancer in the future
Today, two years after beginning treatment, Ms. Acosta-Garcia is a cancer survivor. She is acutely aware, however, that lack of exercise and obesity contribute to the risk of a cancer recurrence. That’s why she has taken advantage of Miami Cancer Institute’s Survivorship Program, where she has lost 30 pounds working with a nutritionist and oncology exercise physiologist over the past few months.
She is now enjoying life with her family, which includes two granddaughters. “I finally have my girls,” she says with a laugh. “I’m getting mammograms every six months so if it comes back, I can catch it quickly. I’m eating the right foods and exercising. I need to put myself first. If I’m not functioning at 100 percent, I am not helpful to my family.”