Brenda Walker has always urged women to get yearly mammograms. Working in mammography for 20 years — more than 16 of those at the RAPA Searcy Breast Center — has shown her how important early detection is when it comes to breast cancer, but on April 29 of this year, things got personal.
“We had finished with patients for the day, and I told my co-worker I needed to get my yearly mammogram,” Walker said. “I thought I saw something that looked a little different. I’m not qualified to read the mammograms, but I did an ultrasound, and it looked abnormal. I had my needle biopsy the next day, and it came back positive.”
She was told that she had infiltrating ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.
Walker did not waste any time, and through her job, she was able to meet people to help her through treatment. Dr. Kathleen Sitarik, one of the Searcy Breast Center’s radiologists, took Walker under her wing and connected her with Dr. Jerri Fant, a breast surgeon in Little Rock.
“I was familiar with [Dr. Fant’s] name but had never met her,” Walker said. “I was very impressed with her, and even though she knew I had a pretty good background knowledge because of my career, she treated me as if I was just a typical patient. I was very appreciative of that, with her explaining everything to me.”
On the Monday following her diagnosis, Walker had surgery to remove the cancerous tissue.
After surgery, Walker saw Dr. Ryan Koch, an oncologist at the Cancer Center of Excellence, where the Searcy Breast Center is located. Walker’s lymph nodes were clear of cancer, but the doctors found other sources of concern. Her HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) came back positive. HER2 is a protein identified in breast-cancer tissue that promotes the growth of cancer cells and indicates increased aggressiveness of the disease.
“Mine was at the highest level,” Walker said. “Dr. Ryan Koch suggested I do the oncotype diagnostic testing.”
Oncotype diagnostic testing is performed on tissue from the surgery to evaluate 21 known genes in tumor cells to indicate the potential for breast-cancer recurrence. Walker’s tests came back with high values, indicating there is a possibility for the cancer to come back.
“It doesn’t mean I’ll have a recurrence or have metastasis elsewhere in the body, but it means there’s a high likelihood it could happen,” she said.
Because of that test result, Walker has been taking several medications and has chemotherapy treatment every three weeks. She has 18 weeks — or six sessions — of chemotherapy before she starts radiation treatment.
“We’re so blessed in this area,” she said. “Not only are the doctors here very knowledgeable in their line of work; they’re so good and caring toward their patients. They’re just so giving.”
No one wants to have cancer, but Walker said her experience has helped her interact with her patients in an empathetic way.
“Until you’re in those shoes, you really can’t understand,” she said. “The word ‘cancer’ doesn’t scare me. I haven’t been frightened at all. I just want to know what’s the next step. My goal now is to help any way I can outside of the realm of this office. There’s so many different emotions a lot of women go through.”
Even before her diagnosis, Walker was involved with Susan G. Komen, including walking in the annual Race for the Cure since 1995. Registration is open for this year’s Komen Arkansas Race for the Cure, which will take place Oct. 4 in downtown Little Rock. More information can be found at www.komenarkansas.org/komen-race-for-the-cure.
“It’s just an awesome organization,” she said of Susan G. Komen. “It brings breast-cancer awareness to women. Through our facility, we offer the Komen Grant, and it’s awesome that we can offer that to women who don’t have insurance or who might have insurance but have a very high deductible.”
The grant makes it possible for some women to get their mammograms without breaking the bank, and Walker is a fierce advocate for getting yearly mammograms. She said women need to have their baseline mammogram done at age 35, and then at 40, it should be a yearly test. If she had put off her own mammogram even six months, her prognosis might have been different.
“Listen, I’m wearing those shoes,” she said. “If I had not had my yearly mammogram when I did, there’s no telling what my outcome or choices would have been. … With me going through this, if it just saves one lady’s life, it’s all worth it. I would do it again tomorrow. That’s the main thing, is educating women to do their monthly self-exams, to have their clinical breast exam every year by their physician and to have their yearly mammogram.”
Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.