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Breast Cancer Survivor Stresses the Benefits of Early Detection

Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute

As the world marked World Cancer Day on February 4th, a Miami woman who last year underwent treatment for breast cancer at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute shared her story in hopes of helping other women appreciate the importance of early detection.


World Cancer Day, according to the Geneva-based Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), “is the one singular initiative under which the entire world can unite together in the fight against the global cancer epidemic.” The UICC says it aims to prevent millions of deaths each year “by raising awareness about cancer and pressing governments and individuals across the world to take action against the disease.”


(Watch now: As the world marked World Cancer Day on February 4th, a Miami woman who was successfully treated for breast cancer at Miami Cancer Institute shared her story in hopes of helping other women appreciate the importance of early detection. Video by Alcyene de Almeida Rodrigues.)


Judy Sanchez, who was born in Miami and lives in Pinecrest with her husband and three daughters, always thought of cancer as an “older person’s disease.” So when she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer early last year, the then-40-year-old was shocked. “I always thought cancer was something older people got, and I might get it in my 60s like my mom did. I was shocked to learn that I had it at age 40,” Ms. Sanchez says, adding that she had no symptoms and felt “completely healthy.”


A family history of breast cancer

A year or so earlier, Ms. Sanchez, the wife of former Florida Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez, lost her own mother to stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. As a result, she was vigilant about her own health and was ready to get her first mammogram once she turned 40.


“When my mom passed from cancer, she was living with us at our house,” recalls Ms. Sanchez. “Our three girls – who were eight, nine and 10 years old at the time – were very close with her and saw her decline. It was such a hard time for them.” She didn’t ever want her girls to see her like that.


At age 40, Ms. Sanchez had her first mammogram, which showed nothing abnormal, followed by a routine MRI that was recommended because of her family history. The MRI revealed something concerning in her left breast. “When I first got the call that I needed to do the biopsy, I cried – it was very hard for me,” she says.


But by the time her biopsy results came back, confirming that Ms. Sanchez had two small tumors, she had already processed the news and was able to transform her mindset from a state of shock and fear to one of acceptance and determination. “I thought to myself, ‘This is just something I’m going through and it’s a speed bump and I’ll be over it.”


An uplifting and nice place to be

After first consulting with an oncologist at another cancer center, Ms. Sanchez decided to get a second opinion and met with breast surgical oncologist Jane Mendez, M.D., chief of breast surgery at Miami Cancer Institute. She is very glad she did.


Jane Mendez, M.D., breast surgical oncologist and chief of breast surgery at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute


“Anything to do with cancer is upsetting and when I arrived at Miami Cancer Institute to meet with Dr. Mendez, I went in thinking that I probably wasn’t going to leave there feeling very good about things,” Ms. Sanchez admits. “But when I walked into the lobby, I was floored by how clean and nice everything looked. I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t a cancer ward, this is such an uplifting and nice place to be.’ It completely changed my perspective on my cancer journey.”


And by the time she left her initial consultation with Dr. Mendez, Ms. Sanchez says she felt like she was on top of the world. “I felt great. Dr. Mendez was amazing. She made me feel so comfortable from the beginning. I was so reassured by everything she told me.”


Dr. Mendez could sense right away that Ms. Sanchez was a “warrior” who had the emotional strength and strong family support that would help ensure a successful outcome for her cancer journey. “Ms. Sanchez had a great attitude. She wanted to be there for her husband and for her daughters and she wanted to know what she needed to do to cure herself and to move forward,” says Dr. Mendez. “She didn’t want her cancer to define her and she didn’t want it to stop her.”


Ms. Sanchez wanted to preserve her breast so Dr. Mendez recommended a lumpectomy, a partial mastectomy, to remove the tumors. “My mom had had a lumpectomy and it was a lot less scary for me than the prospect of a double mastectomy, which I knew was a possibility,” Ms. Sanchez says. Her surgery was successful and all margins were clear, meaning no cancer cells were left behind.


Curing breast cancer takes a village

Dr. Mendez says “it takes a village” to cure a patient with breast cancer and that she considers herself “privileged” to work with “such an incredible team of experts” at Miami Cancer Institute. “We have all the technology, the clinical resources and the acumen but we don’t just treat the cancer, we treat the whole person, with the compassionate care every patient deserves.”


For the next phase of her treatment, Dr. Mendez referred Ms. Sanchez to her Miami Cancer Institute colleagues, medical oncologist Siddhartha Venkatappa, M.D., and radiation oncologist Joseph Panoff, M.D. “I felt like I was in very good hands after meeting with them,” Ms. Sanchez says.


Joseph Panoff, M.D., radiation oncologist with Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute


Ms. Sanchez had 16 sessions of radiation under Dr. Panoff’s supervision and says her treatment went “very smoothly.” “I had heard about side effects like skin irritation or nausea but I had none of those things,” she says.


To prevent recurrence, Dr. Venkatappa recommended hormone therapy, so Ms. Sanchez is taking Tamoxifen daily for five years. She’ll also be monitored with a periodic bilateral breast MRI, which is better able to detect any subtle changes before they become too big of a problem.


Siddhartha Venkatappa, M.D.medical oncologist with Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute


“I’ve heard that some people don’t really love Tamoxifen but I feel like I’m sleeping better and I’ve got plenty of energy,” she says. “I’ve heard that it’s hardest at the beginning but I’ve been on it for four months now and have had no side effects.”


Today, Ms. Sanchez is happy to say she’s cancer-free but after what happened with her mother, she’s also realistic. “I can’t say for sure that I’m necessarily done with cancer,” she says. “Cancer is a journey and right now I’m at the top and feeling healthy and great. But I’m also cautious now and if something comes up, I’m going to do what I need to do.”


Minimizing your risks for breast cancer

Dr. Mendez offers advice to women like Ms. Sanchez who are concerned about their risk of developing breast cancer. “First and foremost, know your body. If you see something, don’t ignore it. The earlier you detect breast cancer, the better your prognosis.” Thanks to early detection, she adds, “this year we can expect a survival rate in excess of 99.5 percent for women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.”


Second, says Dr. Mendez, is to know your family history. “That way, you can be vigilant – just like Ms. Sanchez was because of her mother’s breast cancer – and follow the recommended screening guidelines for patients who have a family history.”


Lastly, Dr. Mendez recommends, take care of yourself. “By that I mean live a healthy lifestyle and make sure you’re eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise and keeping up with your annual mammograms starting at age 40.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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