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Beating Drums and Conquering Cancer

April Samuels, a talented and tenacious drummer, treated her triple negative breast cancer exactly as she would any drum… beat it and don’t quit. Thanks to her unwavering determination and her drive to turn a negative into a positive, April is not only cancer-free, but she is using her experiences to help others battling cancer through her non-profit, Breast Cancer Can Stick It!.

She credits Dr. Joyce O’Shaughnessy, of Texas Oncology-Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center, as her biggest cheerleader. Learn more about April’s journey, Dr. O’Shaughnessy, and the tremendous cancer care team at Texas Oncology.

Music - Long Way From Dead written and performed by BULLITT


(:02, music intro to sound of drumming)
Voiceover: It takes stamina to be a drummer, stamina that helped one musician take on cancer.
April Samuels: Any time I had any tests and things like that run, I would just play music through my head, and it would kind of take me away to a more comfortable place, a more positive energy so I wouldn't be as scared.
Voiceover:  Hi and welcome to Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology, who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For expert cancer care, go to Texas Oncology.com. I'm Ted Canova.
(Music transition)
Ted Canova: Being aggressive, striking back, going into battle, the words of someone who is ready for the challenge.
April Samuels: I'm April Samuels, I live in Dallas, Texas, and I'm a breast cancer survivor.
(Drumming in background)
Ted Canova: There is a certain beat to April's life. Maybe it's because music has always been a big part of it. Credit her parents for starting her off on the drums when she was just five years old. Most kids that age would find pots and pans and start banging. But not April.
April Samuels: When I was very young, I was introduced to drummers because my best friend's brother was a drummer, and my cousin was a drummer, and my brother was taking guitar lessons in a music store. And so, mom and I were waiting for my brother while he was in his lesson, and I found a pair of drumsticks that I just begged her to buy them for me. And that was the start of a big turn in my life.
Ted Canova: April started lessons at 11 and played gigs at 19- not just in clubs, but with other bands…lots of them.
April Samuels: Oh man, over 30, 35, maybe 40 by now. This is home for me.
(Drumming in background stops)
Ted Canova:  Before her diagnosis, April was moving at the speed of light, playing with five or six different bands in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
April Samuels: I really wanted music to be my full-time gig. I wanted to be playing as often as I could be. That was my dream. Right before I was diagnosed, I was actually looking into getting an apartment in Nashville and starting to network out there and seeing see what I could do.
Ted Canova: Seven years before being diagnosed, April had a health scare that proved to be lifesaving.
April Samuels: When I was about 33, 34, I learned that I had fibrocystic breasts and dense breasts.
Ted Canova: That meant, in the future, it would be more difficult to detect any tumors, so April would need to be more diligent with self-exams and periodic mammograms. So, for seven years, she kept living her life, pursuing her dreams, until October 2010, when at 41, she went in for a routine ultrasound to check on her cysts.
April Samuels: Everything looked pretty normal. But then there was one that they were like, "Well, this looks different." Well, I could see it on the screen as well. And I remember it like it was yesterday; it was more round, whereas the other ones were more oblong, and it had speckles in the middle.
Ted Canova: April still wasn't fazed- doctors would keep an eye on it and asked her to come back soon for another look.
April Samuels: They did the ultrasound, and it had grown to twice the size. Now, fortunately, at this time, twice the size wasn't that much bigger because it was so small to start with. So, at that point, it was like, "OK, let's speed up this process." They did a biopsy, and they also did an aspiration that day of another one of my fibroid cysts.
Ted Canova: April remembers the weekend waiting for her test results.
April Samuels: Anyone who's been through breast cancer, one of the most grueling things is waiting for test results. It's just so hard. And so, I had to wait over the weekend. When they got in the office, they called me, and my doctor said that I had what was called triple negative breast cancer and that it was high grade, grade three. I always describe it like this: as soon as he said that his voice kind of changed into the teacher on Charlie Brown.
(Insert Charlie Brown teacher babble)
That's all I heard, and everything else was just muffled nothingness. I know that I cried and was very scared in those few days. However, when I went into the doctor, I felt a sense of going into battle, like I'm ready for a fight, let's do this. I want to throw everything but the kitchen sink at this thing.
(Sound of drumming in the background)
Ted Canova: Perhaps it was April's drive as a drummer, the one who drives the beat, that made her such a fighter.
April Samuels: Well, I made a tough decision to just stop everything.
(Sound of drumming stops)
It honestly wasn't tough, because I was like, "I want to live, and all my focus needs to be put into this fight right now." So, I put my music life completely on hold and focused all my effort and attention to getting through breast cancer.
Ted Canova: Thankfully, April didn't have to live with a bunch of "what ifs" …. like, what if they hadn't detected her fibrocystic breasts, what if she hadn't been vigilant with checkups, what if she waited 'til she was 40 to have her first mammogram, what if she missed a year?
April Samuels: You're spot on. And that's why I always feel that it's so important to be in tune with your body and to find a doctor that you trust that's going to be proactive about your health. I feel like my breast surgeon saved my life because he started this whole thing off, you know, it was his idea to do the screening every six months and stay on top of it.
Ted Canova: One thing we often hear, is that when someone is referred to Texas Oncology, it's not from one person, but from many.
April Samuels: God, I just had all these people specifically recommending Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy at Texas Oncology. But they were coming from completely different unconnected areas of my life. I couldn't ignore it- something was pointing me to Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy at Texas Oncology. There was no if, ands, or buts about it.
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: I'm Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy. I'm a breast cancer specialized medical oncologist with Texas Oncology.
Ted Canova: Dr. O'Shaughnessy recalls how April wasn't that fearful of having breast cancer.
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: My recollection of her is one of her just being irritated, angry with this whole situation, and this did not fit into her agenda at all. I felt like she was going to beat the heck out of breast cancer, just like she beats those drums.
April Samuels: I definitely remember the moment that I met Dr. O'Shaughnessy.
(Cut to clip of Dr. O'Shaughnessy greeting April)
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy, cheerfully: Hey, honey how are you?
April Samuels: Good, how are you?
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: Good, good, good, I'm so sorry you ended up in the hospital…
April Samuels: Oh, I know, it was terrible-
(Cut back to April's voiceover)
April Samuels: I remember when she came in, she was like my biggest cheerleader. She was just like, "All right, let's go, let's go! Let's do this. We're going to do this." And she just gave me so much hope right out of the gates that I was going to be ok.
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: April had a lymph node negative, which is very favorable. But triple negative breast cancer is very aggressive. It grows very, very quickly. But there are more favorable varieties of triple negative breast cancer, and it turns out April's breast cancer was also not very big. In her particular case, I was able to tell her that I thought, with standard chemotherapy, that's a must, that she would have an excellent prognosis.
(Music transition)
Ted Canova: But before chemo, April had a double mastectomy without reconstruction.
April Samuels: I felt that that was the most aggressive way to combat this. I remember being in the doctor's office and saying, "Well, if it's aggressive, I want to be aggressive right back. I want to do the most aggressive thing because I want to lessen my chance of recurrence as best as possible. Whatever I have control over, I want to do that."
Dr. Joyce O'Shaugnessy: With every patient, you have to be realistic. But in April's particular case, I could be extremely positive because of experience and knowing triple negative breast cancer, it's something I study a great deal. And I knew by the characteristics of her cancer that hers should be highly favorable and responsive to therapy, and that she should really have a 90% plus cure rate.
April Samuels: You know, I feel like it was scientific hope. I knew from everybody I had talked to; her credentials and how sought-after Dr. O'Shaughnessy was, I knew if she was telling me this, there had to be truth in that.
Ted Canova: April also benefited by being treated in her own community.
April Samuels: From the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave, if you deal with any negativity, it has a different impact on you mentally than it would another time of your life. You're just super fragile, you know? And that's something that's so great at Texas Oncology. You just get a sense of love and spirituality right when you walk in, and I always remember every time you walk away from the desk, they're like, "Have a blessed day," and that warmth and that community is so important when you're going through something so emotional like this.
Ted Canova: Her medical team, her community, and let's not forget her music.
April Samuels: My passion for music helped me get through my chemo treatments. Any time I had any tests and things like that run, I would just play music through my head. A lot of times it was my original music that I had done with my band, and it would kind of take me away to a more comfortable place, a more positive energy so I wouldn't be as scared. Ironically, the song that I would play in my head, I didn't actually write the lyrics to it, but it was one of our original band's songs, it's called "Long Way from Dead".
(Insert music cut- Long Way from Dead)
April Samuels: Not only was the chemo going into my veins, but the music was going into my veins.
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: People who are dealing with breast cancer, any kind of cancer, have to feel good energy. They've got to have a positive fighting energy and that confidence that we're going to get this job done. They really have to have a doctor who they know is absolutely pitching for them, but also feels confident that they're going to have either a very high chance like in April's case or at least a good chance of benefiting from the therapy.
Ted Canova: And April's prognosis?
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: She did well.
(Transition to upbeat, happy music)
It's a waiting game for the first five years to see if the cancer is going to come back or not, but April tolerated the therapy very, very well. She's a very healthy young woman who had an attitude of, ‘I've got a life to live here.’
Ted Canova: Make no mistake, April's cancer journey wasn't without dips and valleys. Fortunately, she had faith and family to turn to in difficult times.
April Samuels: I was so blessed to have a great church family around me and my family as well. I would go through a lot of periods of depression if I was alone a lot, so I would invite friends over just to hang out with me. And I felt that being around people really energized me and helped me get through that. I just feel like they're a light in my life.
(Music break)
Ted Canova: She had family, but no idea she had family history of cancer, something she learned during genetic testing.
April Samuels: I would say that Texas Oncology honestly was the reason for that whole thing. Like I wouldn't have thought of it, but Dr. O'Shaughnessy feels very strongly about genetic testing. I had no idea how deep the cancer was on my dad's side, and he didn't either. But when we started digging away and chipping away at it, it was like, this big red light over on his side of the family, which makes sense, because prior to my diagnosis, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Dr. Joyce O'Shaughnessy: 50% of us will get cancer. Most families have cancer, but there's no gene in the family, you know, most cancer, unfortunately, is caused more by environmental issues: smoking, overweight, obesity, alcohol.
April Samuels: The cool thing with Dr. O is she says that after eight years of being cancer free from triple negative breast cancer, you're just as likely to get breast cancer as if you had never had it.
Dr. Joyce O’Shaughnessy: Her risk of developing another cancer down the road is absolutely no different than anyone else. She's not at elevated risk because there is no genetic connection there.
(Music transition)
Ted Canova: The doctor-patient relationship is very special, much like the ones April has experienced with all the bands she's played with.
April Samuels: Oh my gosh, she feels like family. She's just a firecracker you know, so smart, so knowledgeable. She has a way with explaining things. She has such a great knowledge and is able to speak so beautifully about it in a way that we can all understand.
Ted Canova: April is also expressing herself in a special way, having started a non-profit "Breast Cancer Can Stick It." It's a stage from which she has always been suited to appear.
April Samuels: "Breast Cancer Can Stick It" is a music-minded organization. We hold events that have drumming, that have live music, and different things like that. But we raise funds for mammograms, financial assistance for breast cancer treatment, and for research and trials. Something was telling me to use my position as a drummer, to be an advocate in the fight against breast cancer. And almost like that was the entire purpose of me ever drumming. That's how it felt.
Dr. Joyce O’Shaughnessy: April's super, super special. She channeled all that energy into, forming her, "Breast Cancer Can Stick It." There you go. There's the attitude, "Hey, you can stick it." That's a beautiful thing. And so, she and I worked together on that. So, we've been able to keep that bond, but she's just an awesome person.
(Music transition)
Ted Canova: These days, in addition to her non-profit, April is also working on a book, what she calls "a total dump" of all her journals, sort of a reference manual, to give women information and hope in their cancer journeys. We hope you enjoyed Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology, who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For expert cancer care, contact Texas Oncology.com. I'm Ted Canova. See you next time. END