‘Cancer is Not Going to Win’ — At 29, She Battled through Breast Cancer Surgery, Chemo and Proton Radiation Therapy – And Got Married Too.
4 min. read
By all accounts, Domenica Fuller was the picture of health – at 29 years of age, she was a regular runner who was mindful about healthy eating and wearing sunscreen. Then, one day last summer, she said she was taking a shower when she did a self-breast exam.
“I will be honest, I didn’t regularly do them, which I’m ashamed to say now,” recalls Ms. Fuller. “I did a self-breast exam and I felt something hard on my left breast. And it wasn’t a lump. It was just something that felt like a frozen grape in my breast.”
At first, her doctor was not alarmed, considering she had dense breast tissue. But Ms. Fuller said her father had recently died from lung cancer, “so my family took it very seriously.” That’s when she went to Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute, and into the care of Joseph Panoff, M.D., radiation oncologist at the Institute specializing in the treatment of breast cancer.
(Watch now: Hear from breast cancer survivor Domenica Fuller and Joseph Panoff, M.D., radiation oncologist at the Miami Cancer Institute specializing in the treatment of breast cancer. Video by George Carvalho.)
She was diagnosed with stage 3 ductal carcinoma, which means the breast cancer has extended to beyond the immediate region of the tumor and may have invaded nearby lymph nodes and muscles.
“And a week later I was in the O.R. getting a double mastectomy,” she said. “To be honest, it was extremely scary because I am a 29-year-old girl with no genetic predisposition. I’m a runner, I eat well, I wear sunscreen every single day. And to say it was a shock is an understatement. My entire family had just gone through the loss of my dad.”
Ms. Fuller adds one more vital fact: The surgery – and the beginning of very intense chemotherapy and proton radiation — took place three months before her wedding day. Proton therapy at the Institute, also known as proton beam therapy, is a radiation treatment that precisely delivers a beam of protons to disrupt and destroy tumor cells — while avoiding healthy tissue and organs.
“And I actually was on four rounds of chemo during my wedding,” she said. “But nobody really knew because I hadn’t told anyone and I was determined to radiate nothing but joy on our special day.”
Ms. Fuller’s post-operative treatment had its challenges, said Dr. Panoff. “She’s extremely young — 29 when I treated her — and her tumor was left sided, which means that it’s close to the heart and the lymphatics that we had to treat were close to the heart,” he explains. “This presents challenges anatomically because we wanted to make sure that the dose avoided her heart, which is obviously very important.”
Miami Cancer Institute has been a pioneer of proton therapy in South Florida. Since opening in 2017, the Institute’s experts have treated more than 800 patients with proton therapy, offering the most advanced form of pencil beam scanning (PBS) technology available today.
Proton therapy was the best choice for Ms. Fuller, adds Dr. Panoff, because “the beam stops at one point in space. This allows us to tailor the treatment and prevent any dose from going past a certain point.”
Dr. Panoff has high praise for the patient.
“Domenica’s story is unique because of a few things,” he explains. “One, she’s young. Someone who’s 29-years-old doesn’t normally have to deal with locally advanced breast cancer and all the treatment details and difficulties that go along with that. She dealt with it in an incredible way. She’s a very strong person who really excelled at it. She really took it head on and battled it — and was a great patient.”
For patients, the Institute’s team approach is a vital component of treatment.
“Having a multidisciplinary team is really what sets a cancer center apart as a center of excellence,” said Dr. Panoff. “It’s what makes Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute a five-star cancer center. Frequently as in Domenica’s case, the treatment is complicated. And the patient needs to know that we’re all in with them. The team is extremely important. We have a robust team that is committed 100 percent to the patient.”
Ms. Fuller agrees wholeheartedly. She singles out the Institute’s “attention to care and understanding that I’m not just a patient. I’m a person. That’s what you get at Miami Cancer Institute.” In the case of Ms. Fuller, the Institute’s team showered her with more than care and understanding. “I actually had the nurses threw me a bridal shower during chemo.”
To mark the completion of her treatment, Ms. Fuller rang the ceremonial bell at Miami Cancer Institute.
“I rang the bell after eight months of treatment and had like 20 nurses and doctors there,” she said. “It was sad to leave them, honestly. It was happy that I would finish my journey, but I’d made such deep connections during what was the hardest part of my life.”
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