|CANCER STORY: ELIZABETH BURDETT
Early in her second pregnancy, Elizabeth Burdett, of Naperville, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer – a disease so aggressive that it's usually in the latest stages before being discovered. Her prognosis was five years – at the most. That was 12 years ago. Here's her story.
Elizabeth was in the first trimester of her pregnancy when her obstetrician noticed lumps in her left breast. She was referred to a breast specialist who was more concerned about redness in her right breast. Elizabeth had thought the redness was just part of normal breast changes during pregnancy. The diagnosis was stage IV inflammatory breast cancer, a rare type that spreads rapidly.
She needed to begin treatment immediately. But, chemotherapy is not recommended in the first trimester and it's particularly dangerous for a female fetus.
Although doctors were unsure she should continue her pregnancy, after discovering the fetus was a boy, she began chemotherapy in her second trimester.
Just weeks after delivering a healthy boy, Elizabeth had a mastectomy, followed by more chemotherapy and radiation. Over the past 10 years, the cancer has spread to her liver, lung, tonsil, femur, lymph nodes and brain. In addition to several surgeries and radiation, she has been on various chemotherapies. She has had only one year off of chemotherapy in 12 years.
Two of those chemotherapy medications, Adriamycin and Herceptin, are classified as cardio toxic because they are hard on the blood vessels and heart.
At 43, Elizabeth experienced her first cardiac event. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, which is now kept under control with medication.
Dr. Maria Rosa Costanzo of Midwest Heart Specialists, Elizabeth's cardiologist and medical director for the Edward Center for Advanced Heart Failure, says it's not uncommon to see breast cancer patients develop heart disease as a complication of chemotherapy, even at a young age and in the absence of traditional risk factors.
"Advances in chemotherapy and radiation have saved the lives of 2.4 million breast cancer patients. But, breast cancer survivors must pay attention to the condition of their heart and be more aggressive about minimizing risk factors such as high cholesterol and blood pressure with regular screenings, good nutrition and daily physical activity," said Costanzo.
"In addition, patients requiring treatment for breast cancer should be screened for the presence of heart disease and should be followed very closely while they receive cancer therapies. Early treatment of heart disease is critical to minimize the effects of chemotherapy on cardiac function," she said.
Now at age 50, Elizabeth describes herself as a "professional patient" with weekly visits to her team of Edward doctors, including an oncologist, a radiologist, a neurosurgeon and a cardiologist.
Having excellent care so close to home lets Elizabeth raise two sons, instead of spending precious time going to Chicago for treatment.
"I have never compromised on my doctors and have always sought out the best. I have survived this long with an excellent quality of life because of advances in targeted chemotherapies, like Herceptin, and because my doctors work together as a team."
Elizabeth advises other patients to be well-informed about their diagnosis by reading about their condition and asking questions.
"You have to be in charge of your own health. Seek out doctors who are excellent diagnosticians and listeners and who stay informed about the latest treatments," she said.
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