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Intuition and early detection pivotal for beating breast cancer twice in 30 years.
Loretta Collins-Williams trusted science, reason and intuition when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and again in 2020 at age 82. By listening to her “inner voice” and receiving yearly mammograms, Loretta became a two-time survivor.
She is a family historian, a student of Black history, and a retired administrative officer from the former Department of Justice, Immigration.
Her rare perspective, which spans three decades, captures remarkable advancements and innovations in cancer surgery and radiation therapy at Henry Ford. And her self-awareness made her one of the first patients treated at the new cancer pavilion in Detroit.
Flashback to 1992. Free of symptoms, Loretta makes an appointment for her yearly mammogram. A mix-up occurs, and she’s told to reschedule. She stands still and has a strong sense she shouldn’t leave. A supervisor resolves the problem, and the mammogram is done. After a biopsy, she gets the diagnosis: Invasive stage 1 breast cancer in her right breast.
She has a lumpectomy, and an axillary dissection to remove 10-20 lymph nodes under her arm. The procedure will prevent the spread of hidden cancer. She received six weeks of daily radiation therapy through a linear accelerator directed to her whole breast – not just the tumor bed.
Fast forward to 2020 when COVID is raging in Detroit. Loretta’s busy doing Zoom exercises four days a week with her pals from a senior center. She won’t be going to her March mammogram appointment.In August, she suddenly stops doing paperwork and thinks, “You need a mammogram.” She doesn’t have any symptoms, but she listens. The mammogram shows something suspicious. After the biopsy, she gets the diagnosis: Pre-invasive cancer, specifically ductal carcinoma in situ in her left breast, stage 0.
She has surgery, but lymph nodes are not removed because the cancer is not invasive. Had the cancer been invasive, she would have had a minimally invasive procedure – a sentinel lymph node biopsy. Tracer dye would locate any suspicious lymph nodes and only those nodes would be removed.
Loretta’s radiation treatment now involves a new type of linear accelerator that is combined with MRI-LINAC, which allows precision targeting of the radiation beam. “Using MRI-guided radiation therapy (ViewRay), we were able to visualize and make sure her heart was never in the field for the treatment, while target the tumor bed only” says Eleanor M. Walker, M.D., director of Breast Radiation Oncology and medical director of Integrative Medicine.
Total number of weeks for treatment: One.
“I’m amazed by the changes. It is absolutely fantastic! The procedure is very efficient. It was fantastic to see how technology has advanced in nearly 30 years,” says Loretta.
The entire time spent in the MRI-LINAC lasts about 20-30 minutes – while Loretta listens to music through earphones (she’s a big fan of Nina Simone).
“Except for a slight warming sensation at one point, I felt absolutely nothing. There was no swelling, no complications,” says Loretta, a resident of westside Detroit who has been coming to Henry Ford since she was 18.
Beyond advances in treatment, Loretta’s story is a reminder of the importance of mammograms after cancer treatment has ended – and the value of listening to your body.
“I felt I had been guided to get a mammogram. With that knowledge, I had a positive outlook. I understood the cancer was a serious situation and I had some consternation, but I didn’t become hysterical or depressed,” says Loretta.
“I had faith and confidence I’d be alright. Henry Ford made it alright before, and I believed they could do it again. I told myself I would just walk through it.”
At the new cancer pavilion, Loretta saw signs of other advancements: exercise facilities and the Center for Integrative Medicine. “The facilities are strategically placed on the first level, so you have to walk past it,” laughs Loretta.
Loretta participates in the ExCITE program to stay active after treatment.
Dr. Walker and a team of cardiovascular experts created the Exercise and Cancer Integrative Therapy Education Program (ExCITE) to help reduce side effects from cancer treatment and to improve energy, strength and mood. Loretta’s now part of the ExCITE program. There’s also massage, Reiki and acupuncture.
This year during COVID, Loretta’s son Taundeko has been her mainstay. “I couldn’t have made it through without him. He’s very attentive and conscious of exercise and diet, always making sure I eat well,” says Loretta.
Her bookshelves are stacked with more than 50 cookbooks collected during her travels to China, Egypt, seven Caribbean Islands and 38 U.S. states. “I love reading and learning about people from different cultures,” says Loretta.
Loretta’s advice for cancer patients
Use your brain to the full extent. Do everything to cooperate. Eat well, exercise and remain positive. Talk to yourself. “You’ve already weathered other hard times, you can weather them again. Keep doing your best, and it’s going to be alright.
“I highly recommend Henry Ford because I’ve had confidence in the treatment I’ve received there. If you don’t have confidence, move to a place where you do have confidence. Otherwise, you’re defeating yourself,” says Loretta.
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