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The Emotional Journey of Breast Cancer

A patient shares her personal story of diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship

By Tracy Fitzgerald

It is hard for Maria Smith to describe in words how her life has changed since the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“This is the hardest thing I have ever gone through,” she explained. “I am not sure that anyone could ever fully understand how it feels to hear you have breast cancer, unless they have gone through it themselves.”

Maria was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer in 2022 after discovering a small lump. She turned to the Center for Breast Health at Beebe Healthcare, where her treatment plan was facilitated by a team of experts who collaborated every step of the way to treat Maria’s cancer and on the road to survivorship.

The multidisciplinary team of board-certified medical oncologist Srujitha Murukutla, MD, board-certified radiation oncologist Jennifer Hung, MD, and fellowship-trained breast surgeon Matthew Richards, MD, mapped out a comprehensive treatment plan that included chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Maria’s care team helped her understand her diagnosis, her treatment options, and the pros and cons associated with her options. They also demonstrated their commitment to delivering holistic and compassionate care. Social worker Amanda Schuler, LCSW, helped coordinate transportation to and from medical appointments, and breast health nurse navigator Kathy Cook, MSN, RN, who served as Maria’s “go-to” resource for education, support, and coordinated care.

“The entire team at Beebe was so kind and caring, and stressed that I could contact them at any time when I needed information or help,” Maria said. “I had so many questions; some of them didn’t even make sense. But I still asked, and they always answered, without judgement. They were so supportive and understanding of what I was going through. It meant a lot to me.”

Ultimately, erring on the side of caution and with a goal to minimize her risk for cancerous tissue to return, Maria opted to have Dr. Richards perform a double mastectomy. She says it was the right decision, but a hard one, nonetheless.

“I have always been a ‘girly girl’ who cares about my appearance,” explained Maria. “I stand by the decisions I made, but I am still trying to come to grips with the fact that I have lost some of my body parts. It’s been an emotional process.”

In the midst of her treatment and recovery, Maria has also received a lot of encouragement from her family and the Beebe care team. Her daughter has repeatedly reminded her of how important it is to stay focused on the positive, and to have hope for the future.

“My diagnosis truthfully hit me like a ton of bricks, and many days feel still hard for me, emotionally,” Maria said. “But my daughter is helping me stay focused and reminds me often that I have a lot to be grateful for. I am fighting. I am alive. I am surviving. And because of the great care I received, it is possible for me to start living a normal life again.”

For Maria, normalcy has come from her ability to return to work on a part-time basis. Additionally, she has come to realize that she can have a positive impact on others by sharing her personal experience. Her hope is that by sharing her story, other people in the community – both men and women – will be reminded and inspired to make their breast health a top priority. Acting quicky if you detect a lump, along with annual mammograms, can increase the likeliness that breast cancer can be caught and treated early.

“I am very in-tune to my body, but I didn’t know that lump was there,” said Maria. “I think my story demonstrates why it is important for women to make their breast health a priority. Check your breasts on a regular basis. Schedule that yearly mammogram.”

It is also important to note that signs of breast cancer can present in many different forms. Nipple retraction, nipple discharge, redness, rashes, swelling, and dimpling of the skin are all signs and symptoms that should be evaluated by a medical professional promptly. Additionally, those with a family history of breast cancer are encouraged to consider evaluation at Beebe’s Center for Breast Health. Call 302-703-3595 to make an appointment. Visit the Breast Health page to learn more about Delaware’s only breast center that is accredited by the American College of Surgeons’ National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers.