My Breast Cancer Survivor Story
Amy Donnelly of Homer Glen is a wife, mother, registered medical technologist at the UChicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center at Silver Cross and fitness instructor. Her energy and enthusiasm know no bounds. And anyone she encounters in her joyful journey through life is the better for it.
Last year, when Amy was feeling her absolute best, she was unknowingly preparing for the fight of her life: breast cancer. Thankfully, every cancer resource she needed was available through Silver Cross and UChicago Medicine…close to home.
Here’s her amazing story – from the time she was diagnosed to the present.
My Breast Cancer Journey
Ironically, at the time I felt like I was the strongest and the most fit I had ever been…little did I know that everything was about to change. In early March of 2020, I noticed a swollen lymph node in my armpit, but it presented following a viral infection, so I didn't think much of it. At that time, I was 45 years old and had never had a mammogram because nobody in my family on either side had ever had any type of cancer, so cancer wasn't even on my radar.
After a couple of weeks, my armpit stopped hurting, but I could still feel what felt like a little rubber ball inside, so I decided to get it checked out. Unfortunately, at the same time, the whole world began to shut down because of COVID, so getting in for an appointment wasn't as easy as it would have been normally.
I honestly didn't even know what doctor to go see, so I made an appointment with my gynecologist since they usually are the ones who do annual breast exams. He ordered a bilateral diagnostic mammogram at Silver Cross Hospital. After the radiologist reviewed the mammogram, I immediately got scheduled for an ultrasound-guided biopsy. That day was one of the worst days ever emotionally, but I was blessed to have my path cross with Neda, an outstanding nurse at the hospital's women's health center.
I hadn't even gotten any results back yet, but I just knew it wasn't good and I'm sure the staff did as well, even though they couldn't say. Neda spoke to me in a room, gave me her card, and some words of wisdom to take things one day at a time and not to get ahead of myself, which of course I had! Somehow, she knew that each tear coming out of me contained a piece of future plans that I believed I would no longer be able to keep. She told me that my life wasn't over and that I would be around to take another vacation and make more memories.
I'm forever grateful for that because I really needed that little bit of hope to brighten up the horribly dark place I felt I was in. When I returned the next week for my biopsies, Mary, the ultrasound tech, held my hand and even let me keep my pride when she pretended not to see the tears slip out that I tried so desperately to contain. I know she saw them, even though she didn't say, because she gave my hand an extra squeeze and told me I was doing great. I know that looking back my priority was to get accurate, first-rate healthcare, but I cannot express how grateful I was to have healthcare workers who were so compassionate. For me—especially in the beginning—I felt like I was living in a nightmare that I could not wake up from, so having a competent, caring healthcare team around me meant so much.
On June 2, 2020, I had my first appointment with Dr. Jennifer Tseng at the Breast Center at Silver Cross Hospital. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma of the Breast ERPR+ Protein Negative with Lymph involvement.
She also took my hand when she told me and my husband, and patiently answered all of our questions even though I probably wasn't making much sense, because at that point, it's so difficult to focus because your mind is constantly moving in a million different directions. She explained that things have changed a bit over the years and my recommended treatment course was to receive chemotherapy first, then surgery and finish treatment with radiation. Her office helped me coordinate a visit with Dr. Rebecca Garza, a plastic surgeon who Dr. Tseng was used to working closely with.
For chemo, I needed a primary oncologist, and I chose Dr. Andrea Amico because I knew that she had a lot of experience with genetic testing, and since I had four daughters, I wanted to find out for myself as well as my children whether or not I was positive for the BRCA gene (which I wasn't). I was able to get an appointment with Dr. Amico that same month. She recommended a treatment course for my type of tumor, which was four rounds of chemo drug AC and then four rounds of chemo drug Taxol over the course of four months.
But before I agreed to any treatment, I did a great deal of soul searching through prayer before my battle plan began to take shape, and what I ultimately decided was to receive conventional cancer treatment paired with nutrition, exercise and herbal supplements prescribed by a licensed N.D., Dr. Michael Robinson out of Downers Grove.
I came up with this after reading a lot of different stories from cancer survivors, and I noticed a trend: most of the people that I came across who healed after having cancer had a strong tribe behind them, they took supplements, and they chose a treatment plan that they believed in and then gave it 110%.
At this time, I was still grappling with accepting my diagnosis, and so everything seemed about as clear as mud, but I knew I had to keep moving forward and this plan was my best attempt at doing whatever I could to extinguish the cancer growing in my body, and God willing put me on a life-long road to better health.
My first chemo was on June 25, 2020. My husband was allowed to come only to the first treatment due to COVID restrictions that were in place. Over the next four months, I continued to receive chemo by myself, but I never felt alone. The infusion nurses at the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center are some of the finest human beings I have had the privilege to be around. I know that I was also their coworker, so some might say that it's different because they knew me, but since some of my chemo rounds took 4-5 hours, I was there for a long time and I heard a lot of the interactions that go on between the staff and other patients, and from what I observed, they are an amazing group of skilled professionals that take the time to get to know their patients while treating them, and in doing so, motivate you and help you to care for yourself so that hopefully you can heal from your illness and continue to live and enjoy your life!
During my four months of chemo, my youngest daughter introduced me to Tic Toc, and she suggested I make a Tic Toc for every treatment, so I did. Admittedly, my Tic Tocs stink, but I think they improved over time. (My Tick Toc is public, so anyone can view my videos @amyangelique333.) The nurses participated in my Tic Tocs when they had time, and it meant the world to me and my family because it was a nice little break and a time to be silly when so much else going on was so difficult. And that to me was one of the biggest challenges during cancer treatment.
All About Attitude
The point of treatment is to heal from cancer so that you can continue living, but to me, that was too long of a wait. I needed to learn how to live during treatment, so I directed whatever energy I had doing things I enjoyed to keep my spirits up! I've worked in healthcare for over 20 years, and one thing I've personally noticed is that the people I've met who have outlived their diagnoses for many years all seem to have such a great attitude. They let go of anger and feelings of life being unfair and they embrace what they do have and basically make the best of every day. And when you are around these people, they brighten your day and make you smile, so my patients really became a source of inspiration for me.
Although I felt like I was walking through Hell, I always did my best to embrace my treatment and not to give up. For example, some people call A/C chemo the “red devil,” but I called it my “red phoenix,” ‘cause even though it’s really tough to live through, I believed it was burning the disease out of my body so that I could rise up from those ashes and reclaim my health.
And during this tough stretch of treatment, I still felt blessed because I was receiving so much support from my coworkers, especially the "Labtastics," as well as from my family and friends in the form of cards, meals, flowers, comfy jammies, you name it! They were all wonderful. Throughout my entire chemo treatment, I was closely monitored, and unfortunately, my white blood cell (WBC) counts were critically low more than once. But Dr. Amico helped me to get back on track each time, and I even was able to attend my daughter's high school graduation after they squeezed me in at the infusion center the day before so I could receive an injection to help bolster my WBC counts.
Alternative Medicine Treatment
During my chemo, I continued to take supplements provided by my naturopath that Dr. Amico agreed were safe to take in tandem with traditional chemo, and as of today I have no lasting neuropathies from my treatment. I really hope the future of cancer treatment includes more integration of natural medicine. It's tough for doctors to support supplementation because there needs to be more studies so that there's data to support the safety and effectiveness of this integration.
I know that just this month, Silver Cross hired a dietitian dedicated to the cancer center, which I think is fantastic! Insurance companies need to start covering Naturopathic Doctors and more alternative medicine treatments, because I truly believe that a marriage between conventional medicine and alternative medicine will improve the prognosis for many disease states. It also will put more focus on preventative medicine to help disease from setting in to begin with as well as prevent it from returning.
Ringing That Bell
On October 2, 2020, I finished my last chemo, and I got to ring the bell. I am coming up on that one-year anniversary, and I am so grateful! Some people have mixed feelings about ringing that bell, but I loved it. For me, ringing that bell was to celebrate the very simple fact that at that exact moment in time, you are alive and able to ring a bell after one of the most challenging trials you have ever faced emotionally and physically. Anybody who has had chemo understands why they call those who complete it “warriors.”
After chemo, my next step was to have a bilateral mastectomy with primary reconstruction expanders put in at University of Chicago by Dr. Tseng and Dr. Garza. Treatment, I've found, is rarely ever a straight line, so I encourage anyone reading this who is facing treatment not to get discouraged if there are delays, because it happens. My white counts were too low for my first surgery date, so I was pushed back all the way to Dec. 11th, and although I was disappointed, I'm grateful that we paused things so that I had some time to get stronger and be in a good place for my surgery. At that time, no visitors were allowed, so I had to go through my surgery alone. But again, I was blessed to get two of the most amazing nurses, Karen and Caitlin, who took such great care of me, because I'm not going to lie, it's a very difficult surgery, and without family there to help you, I had to rely solely on these two beautiful strangers to help me do everything after my surgery, because it's really hard to move around, and I felt like I had T-Rex arms in the beginning shortly after surgery.
They taught me how to move and to empty my drains, and I felt like they treated me like we were friends, which meant so much to me because it's scary going in for a surgery without any family there to be with you. But they say every dark cloud has a silver lining, and for me, living through this has taught me to lean into my faith. Not having people be able to be present with me forced me to look inward for my connection to God, who is always with us during the good times and the bad.
At some point early on, the burden of my diagnosis and the weight of watching my kids and my husband and my mother see me go through this became too much and so at the suggestion of a friend, I bundled up all my burdens in prayer and asked Jesus to carry them for me because they were just too heavy. After that I felt lighter and I started “living" during my treatment. I did what I could when I could. I didn't have the energy during treatment to work and teach Jazzercise as often as I normally did, but when my WBC counts became challenged and I had to take some time off work, I still made it a goal to teach at least one Jazzercise class each chemo cycle remotely via live stream from my house. The support and encouragement I received from all of the women who were members was phenomenal! I truly feel blessed to have had such an amazing tribe surrounding me and supporting me.
Physical Therapy at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
I also would like to mention that before I went into surgery, Dr. Tseng referred me to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab at Silver Cross Hospital where they took baseline measurements of both of my arms, so that after surgery, I could be evaluated and monitored for lymphedema, since I had a sentinel lymph node removed. I started to receive physical therapy along with lymphatic massage shortly after my surgery, and Teme and Anna were my therapists. These two wonderful ladies helped me regain my flexibility and my mobility, and since I did experience some swelling, I began to receive lymphatic massage and began wearing a compression sleeve.
When you are being monitored for lymphedema, they calculate your measurements because if you reach a 10 percent increase in size, that indicates that you have lymphedema. Teme assessed my swelling had increased to 7 percent and so we began to work together using lymphatic massage and stretching exercises to address the swelling early on in the hopes that my swelling would not increase. I am happy to report that currently my measurements are below 2 percent as a result, and I attribute that to all of the hard work and attention that went in on my end and the work of my wonderful team.
I'm so glad that I chose to receive treatment there, because at Shirley Ryan, you receive your entire treatment with a licensed Physical Therapist, and I personally benefited from this so much!
The next step in my treatment plan was to meet with Dr. Anne McCall to discuss radiation. After reviewing my case and since I had lymph involvement, Dr. McCall recommended 25 radiation treatments, which began at the end of January 2021. I got to know the radiation team quite well during this time, and again, I was relieved to find yet another department of staff that goes above and beyond what their job requires in order to help their patients succeed.
Nurse Nicky was available for any and all questions, and all of the awesome radiation techs like Eric and Molly really helped make the whole process run as smoothly as possible. Kim Denardo so kindly helped me arrange my appointments so that I was able to go back to my job in the lab and work throughout my treatment. During my 25 treatments, I drank water like a fish, I lotioned 4-6 times a day, and I continued to take vitamins and other supplements prescribed from my naturopath and that Dr. McCall agreed were safe to take during radiation.
I was impressed, too, at how radiation has evolved over time to help improve the safety of the procedure and target only the specific areas that needed the radiation. Each time I went, the techs met me with smiles and let me pick what music I wanted, which helped the treatment time go by quickly. Originally, I thought meditative music would help me relax, but in the end, my playlists included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Black-Eyed Peas and other favs.
I also felt better after Dr. McCall went over my preliminary beam field photos that showed exactly where the radiation beams would pass through my body, avoiding my heart and involving my lungs as little as possible. She developed a path to guide what I referred to as my "healing rays." During each treatment, my body position was continuously monitored by infra-red beams to ensure I was positioned correctly before any radiation beams went through. In the beginning of March this year, I got to ring a second bell after I finished 25 treatments. My body was tired physically and emotionally, but I was more grateful than I ever thought possible, especially after Dr. McCall ordered repeat imaging scans of my body that came back clear.
The Road to Recovery
In May of this year, Dr. Garza performed a second surgery to switch out my expanders for gel implants, giving me back my figure, and today, as I write this, I am back working and teaching Jazzercise, continuing to rebuild my strength, stamina and health. The only prescription drug I'm on now is Anastrozole to lower my Estrogen levels, but I also take multiple natural supplements daily prescribed by my N.D.
I'm enjoying spending less time in doctors’ waiting rooms, and more time with my family and friends. But don't get me wrong, some days can still be tough and I still throw myself a pity party now and then, but I've learned that it’s OK to vent. Its's normal and it's healthy, but you gotta just let it flow and let it go, ‘cause I don't want to waste any time worrying about the "what ifs." The truth I've come to believe personally is that nobody knows what their future holds.
There are no guarantees in life, so now I strive daily to do my best, and when I see an opportunity to bring some light to another, I find the time to help, because we are all in this together. Nobody will succeed in anything without the help and cooperation of those around you, and I hope telling this story publicly will help people, even if it’s only one person.
Advice to Others
So please, ladies, get a mammogram every year, maybe even make it a habit to do it during your birthday month as a gift to yourself, because 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with varying stages of breast cancer, even with no genetic predisposition.
Take care of yourself, drink lots of water, eat lots of things that are green! Pray every day, and give thanks each morning that your eyes open to live another day! And if you are living through cancer treatment right now, try to surround yourself with people and things that bring the light. Read authors who are full of knowledge and hope on how to empower yourself, like Chris Wark.
Put energy into life practices until they become routine, like daily exercise and a healthy diet. If you find yourself served with the news that nobody wants to hear, do your homework and choose a path that you truly believe can lead you back to good health, and hopefully you will be around for many, many years to come!
Most simply put, like the sign my 11-year-old daughter painted for me the day after I shared my diagnosis says ... BE STRONG.