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How One Woman's Brush with Breast Cancer Changed Her Perspective on Preventive Health

Publication: Dallas Morning News

By: David Buice

Throughout her adult life, Karen Kissinger avoided doctors, checkups and mammograms due to her fibrocystic breast disease, which causes lumpy, fibrous, noncancerous tissues to form in the breasts. She even put off performing self-examinations because she was unable to tell one lump from another.

On those rare occasions Kissinger did have a mammogram, the fibrocystic lumps made the experience painful. And her demanding job at American Airlines allowed her to rationalize that she was too busy for regular medical checkups.

Things started to change for Kissinger in the spring of 2015. First, a co-worker received a breast cancer diagnosis, and not long afterward, Kissinger’s mother Beverly was diagnosed with the same disease. Those events — and her mother’s family history of breast cancer — led Kissinger to overcome her reluctance to have a mammogram.

While awaiting her results, Kissinger flew to Indiana to be with her mother. Beverly couldn’t tolerate chemotherapy and was determined not to have a mastectomy. As she sat by her mother’s bedside, Kissinger received a text message saying her mammogram had shown an abnormality.

Kissinger returned to Texas for additional testing, which led to a diagnosis of Stage 1 left breast invasive duct cell cancer, the most common form of the disease.

After consultation with her breast surgeon, Dr. Angela Seda, Kissinger ultimately chose to have a double mastectomy. While she was initially hesitant to have reconstructive surgery, Dr. Seda discussed the option of undergoing a DIEP flap reconstruction, which uses soft tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct the breast mound while sparing the muscle to maintain core strength.

Dr. Seda, assisted by plastic surgeons Dr. James Boehmler and Dr. Nabil Habash, performed Kissinger’s surgery in late June 2015, which was followed by four rounds of chemotherapy under the management of Texas Oncology physician Dr. Mrugesh Patel that lasted until December. To counteract the estrogen that could possibly feed the growth of future tumors, Kissinger is now on a five-year regimen of the estrogen-inhibiting drug anastrozole.

“Karen is a good example of the use of molecular profiling of breast cancers,” said Dr. Seda, Kissinger’s breast surgeon at Texas Breast Specialists. “We no longer only look at the size of a tumor and its nodal status — we have the ability to look at the genomics of a specific tumor to help develop a more personalized treatment plan. She is also a good example of being able to stay in her own community setting to obtain all her treatments without sacrificing the advantage of collaboration and coordination of cancer care.”

The recovery process has been difficult, Kissinger concedes. Among other side effects, the anastrozole makes her cranky, and she admits that she’s snapped at her husband Shawn more than once. Yet he has remained faithfully at her side, attending all of her appointments and chemotherapy sessions. The two also practiced hot yoga together as a way to detox and regain strength, in addition to reducing stress.

As she dealt with the various aftereffects of her treatment, Kissinger resumed her work at American Airlines in a new position, one she’d applied for on the eve of her surgery. But as Kissinger gradually recovered, her mother’s fight with breast cancer remained complicated by her opposition to surgery and the side effects of chemotherapy.

Kissinger returned to Indiana with the hope that her own recovery would give her 80-year-old mother the courage to fight on. Sadly, however, Beverly passed away on Feb. 7, 2016.

Despite this heartbreaking loss, Kissinger remains determined to continue her own fight. She lives her life one day at a time, and she hopes she can give others the strength to fight their own cancer battles.

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