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On March 9, 2010, Lael Swank celebrated her 39th birthday and within the week she noticed a lump in her left breast while taking a shower. "It couldn't be," she thought. With no family history of breast cancer, Lael figured she'd get her first mammogram the following year, when she turned 40. Two days later, Lael and her husband Randy traveled to Philadelphia to attend a Michael Bublé concert and that evening she revealed the news to her husband. Within days, Lael was not only scheduled for a mammogram, but she underwent an ultrasound and biopsy and on March 23, Lael was diagnosed with stage IIB, grade III, invasive ductal carcinoma (breast cancer).
"It was my life we were dealing with. So we went to Fox Chase."
The Swanks live in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania about 2 hours north of Philadelphia. Although she was diagnosed by a local breast surgeon, her doctor strongly suggested she make the trip to Fox Chase Cancer Center Philadelphia if at all possible. "It was my life we were dealing
This young mom had the challenging job of sharing this news with her boys, Garrett and Jason, who were only 7 and 4 at the time. "That's what broke my heart the most," she recalled. Over the next few days, the family tried their best to come to terms with the diagnosis and began the process of researching and evaluating Fox Chase and its physicians. Lael's mother helped care for the boys, which relieved some of the stress. Her sister Kellie, a pediatric nurse in Atlanta, flew to Philadelphia to support Lael and accompany her to the appointments.
"There were so many medical terms being explained to us and I was still in a state of shock," admitted Lael. "We were happy to have an extra set of ears."
"I felt so fortunate to have such a wonderful team of physicians working on my case."
At her first visit, Lael met her team of breast cancer specialists, including a surgical oncologist, Dr. Richard Bleicher; a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Neal Topham; a medical oncologist, Dr. Holly Dushkin and a radiation oncologist, Dr. Gary Freedman. "I felt so fortunate to have such a wonderful team of physicians working on my case," said Lael. "It felt like a family. They were all familiar with my situation and together we created a treatment plan. I felt confident and safe - and still feel that way. This is where I want to be."
Dr. Bleicher referred Lael to the Department of Clinical Genetics at Fox Chase where she met with Christina Rybak, MS, CGC, a genetic counselor who tested Lael for the BRCA gene because of her age. The results were negative.
In May, Lael was admitted to Fox Chase for a bilateral mastectomy and TRAM reconstruction. Although she was diagnosed with cancer in the left breast, Lael chose to have the right breast removed prophylactically. "Dr. Bleicher and Dr. Topham worked together so I could have the surgery and reconstruction during the same procedure. They are so talented!"
Willing to do anything to eliminate the cancer, Lael entered a clinical trial.
After a 6-week recovery, Lael was ready for her next step — chemotherapy — which began in June. Lael qualified for a clinical trial designed to improve upon the standard treatment for her type of cancer. "It was a tough decision, but I was willing to try anything and everything to beat this disease."
Lael and her husband made weekly trips from their home in Northeastern Pennsylvania to Fox Chase for her infusions. "We have such a wonderful support system of friends and family to help with the boys," shared Randy. "We were able to focus on Lael's treatment and know that everything would be handled smoothly at home. We couldn't ask for more."
CarePages helped Lael stay connected with loved ones during her treatment.
Lael's close friend, Linda, helped Lael track her journey using CarePages, a free Internet site designed to help patients stay connected to their loved ones during treatment. "Together, we posted weekly updates and photos," explained Lael. "It is so easy to keep everyone in the loop — and I love reading the messages my family and friends post."
During her treatment, Lael felt it was important for her family to have the support they needed. For that reason, the Swanks worked closely with the social work department at Fox Chase, specifically Luanne Chynoweth.
"Luanne is amazing and really went out of her way to help our family. She would call to check-in with me and make sure I never felt alone. Randy and I were very comfortable with her discussing how we were feeling about what we were going through in this new life," shared Lael. Because they live so far away, their boys couldn't participate in the Kids Night Out program, so Luanne offered to meet with her sons to see how they were coping with their mother's serious illness.
Lael finished her chemotherapy treatment in early November 2010. In addition to 5 weeks of radiation therapy scheduled for the late fall 2010, Lael is continuing treatment at Fox Chase through a clinical trial (ECOG 5103). "I hope to be finished by spring 2011, which will be nice as we travel quite a distance to come to Fox Chase," Lael added.
"I would recommend Fox Chase to anyone who has breast cancer. Even if you have to drive a long way to get there."
"I would recommend Fox Chase to anyone who has breast cancer. Even if you have to drive a long way to get there, it is definitely worth it. You have access to the best team of doctors, the most compassionate nurses and the latest treatment options."