Breast Cancer Survivor Credits Her Faith and Her Physician
6 min. read
Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute
Yvette Nelson of Miami was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2019, when her primary care provider noticed an unusual lump on her left breast and immediately referred her to a friend at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute.
The diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mrs. Nelson, a mother of three who was 49 at the time. But she had a daughter in school who has a busy schedule of sports and other activities, and a son who would be graduating from high school in a few short months. She was determined to be there for his big day.
(Watch now: Yvette Nelson of Miami recalls how her faith and the experts at Miami Cancer Institute helped her beat her stage 4 breast cancer and attend her son’s high school graduation. Video by Eduardo Morales.)
Mrs. Nelson’s son accompanied her to her first appointment with medical oncologist Ana Cristina Sandoval Leon, M.D., at Miami Cancer Institute. Like his mother, he too was scared when he heard the diagnosis.
Dr. Sandoval Leon informed Mrs. Nelson that she had stage 4 HER2-positive breast cancer, an aggressive type of cancer that is quick to metastasize to other locations in the body and tends to recur after treatment. Even worse, her breast cancer had spread to her liver, where imaging detected a single metastatic lesion, known as an oligometastatic cancer.
Ana Cristina Sandoval Leon, M.D., medical oncologist at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute
“By definition, a stage 4 breast cancer cannot be cured,” Dr. Sandoval Leon notes. “But there are many patients – specifically those with HER2-positive breast cancers and sometimes other subtypes of breast cancers – who can live for many years without any evidence of disease.”
“I told my son, ‘I’m going to live.’”
Mrs. Nelson wasn’t about to let the terrible news shake her deep faith or interfere with her son’s upcoming graduation.
“I’m thinking there is no way cancer could affect my body!” she recalls. “I’ve been doing all the right things – eating right, exercising. I’m very active. I love to ride my bike and walk in the park. There’s no way I’m going to let this beat me.” And thanks to her faith in God, she adds, she had no fear. “I felt very confident everything was going to be okay.”
Mrs. Nelson needed her son to understand this, too. She snapped her fingers, looked him in the eye and told him, “Listen, everything is going to be okay, Son. I’m going to live. I’m going to live.”
“God knows, I was in a lot of pain.”
Dr. Sandoval Leon took her patient’s case to her colleagues on Miami Cancer Institute’s multidisciplinary tumor board – a group of breast surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, pathologists, geneticists and other cancer specialists who meet weekly to review cases and offer their expertise.
The board concurred with Dr. Sandoval that the best course of treatment for Mrs. Nelson was chemotherapy in combination with the antibodies against HER2, followed by surgery to remove the tumor on her breast and radiation therapy. She would have to continue with the antibodies against HER indefinitely due to the liver metastasis.
Aside from Dr. Sandoval Leon, Mrs. Nelson’s care team at Miami Cancer Institute would include breast surgeon Gladys Giron, M.D., radiation oncologist Joseph E. Panoff, M.D., and plastic surgeon Miguel Medina, M.D.
At first, Mrs. Nelson says, she was “very much against” chemotherapy. “I was, like, no way could I have chemotherapy! I see how people react to it and how it affects their bodies.” But Dr. Sandoval Leon convinced her it was the only way to arrest her cancer. Shortly after her diagnosis was confirmed by biopsy, Mrs. Nelson started her regimen.
While the chemotherapy did take a toll on her body, as Mrs. Nelson had expected – “God knows, I was in a lot of pain,” she recalls – it could not affect her spirit.
Dr. Sandoval Leon had told her patient upfront that she would need to lean on her family and friends during her chemotherapy, which can be rigorous for some patients depending on the extent of their disease.
Breast cancer survivor Yvette Nelson, center, surrounded by her three children, Elijah (23), Malyia (13) and Demond (27)
“It’s hard to do by yourself, especially when you’re already feeling exhausted and sick,” Dr. Sandoval Leon says. “Having a support network can go a long way in helping you manage things during your treatment.”
“I believe God can do the impossible.”
When she first walked into Miami Cancer Institute, Mrs. Nelson says she felt confident about what lay ahead, in part because she knew she had someone else in her corner, too. “I have such strong faith in God – my faith is, like, out of the waters,” she says. “I believe God can do the impossible when there is no possibility in medicine.”
Even though she initially presented with a stage four breast cancer, Mrs. Nelson today is “doing great,” according to Dr. Sandoval Leon. “Her recent scans show no evidence of disease, and I think her prognosis is very good.” Thanks to new, more effective therapies against HER2-positive breast cancer, she says, “many of these patients are still doing very well five, even ten years after diagnosis.”
Dr. Sandoval Leon says she continues to follow up with her patient, who comes in to see her every two months and also every three weeks for antibodies against HER2. Her therapy has resulted in some residual side effects for Mrs. Nelson, such as neuropathy, which the oncologist says is what she has been struggling with the most.
“I always recommend to my patients that they exercise before, during and after treatment,” Dr. Sandoval Leon says. “It has been shown to improve outcomes by decreasing not only the risk of toxicity but also the risk of recurrence.”
One of the side effects of chemotherapy that oncologists must watch for is cardiotoxicity, which can affect heart function if not treated quickly. “Standard of care for breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy includes ultrasounds of the heart every three months or so during treatment,” Dr. Sandoval Leon explains. “That way, we can make any necessary adjustments before there is any potential for damage due to toxicity.”
“Placing the right people in my life.”
Dr. Sandoval Leon says that Mrs. Nelson’s faith in both God and Miami Cancer Institute no doubt helped with her outcome. “She listened to our recommendations, she was truly believing in our care and she was always happy to come in for her treatment,” she says. “She is a very positive person, too. Every time I see her, it makes my day.”
For her part, Mrs. Nelson says that Dr. Sandoval Leon and the staff at Miami Cancer Institute “have been phenomenal” in helping her through her cancer journey. “That was 2019 and I’m still here in 2023,” she says with a smile, adding that she did indeed get to attend her son’s high school graduation while still undergoing treatment.
“I’m truly grateful to God for placing the right people in my life,” Mrs. Nelson says. “When I say I didn’t have to do anything but show up for my appointments and treatments, that’s literally all I had to do. They took care of everything else. And I told them, ‘You know what? With your help and God’s help, everything can be accomplished.’”
Clinical trials “really making a difference.”
Dr. Sandoval Leon adds that clinical trials are underway at Miami Cancer Institute for patients such as Mrs. Nelson, who presented with stage four breast cancer and must undergo lifelong therapy to keep their cancer at bay. She could one day be a candidate for one of these trials, the oncologist says.
“At Miami Cancer Institute, we have many clinical trials for patients with different types of breast cancer and other cancers,” says Dr. Sandoval Leon, who notes that breast cancer patients today are living much longer thanks to clinical trials which have paved the way for new life-prolonging drugs that are improving outcomes. “Clinical trials are really making a difference.”
According to Dr. Sandoval Leon, most breast cancers diagnosed early are curable, underscoring the importance of early detection. “More than 90 percent of patients with stage 1 breast cancer will be cured,” she says. “This means it’s extremely important to do your monthly self-exams and, starting at age 40, to get your annual mammograms. If you ever feel any palpable lesion in your breast, seek medical attention right away and get a further workup done.”
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