Know Your Body, Trust Your Intuition
Know your body, trust your intuition. A Duke mammographer shares her breast cancer story.
In late September 2017, Ginger Connor was enjoying a family vacation at the beach when she felt a lump in her left breast. At the age of 48, Connor had been doing self-breast exams regularly for years and she immediately realized this was something new.
When she returned from vacation to her job as a mammography technologist at Duke Women’s Cancer Center Raleigh, Connor underwent a biopsy, followed by a breast MRI the next day. When that identified two additional areas of concern, the next steps included an ultrasound and more biopsies. On October 6, Connor received the diagnosis she had already feared: breast cancer.
Connor’s breast cancer was identified as invasive ductal carcinoma, present in two different quadrants of her breast. On October 23, 2017 – during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and less than a month after discovering the lump – Connor had a double mastectomy. It was undoubtedly the most life-changing month of her life, but not without a few good memories. In addition to treasured family portraits taken during that beach vacation, Connor also enjoyed the Bruno Mars concert that she had waited more than a year to attend.
Having both breasts removed when cancer was only present in one was a very personal decision for Connor, but it was one she had made even before her diagnosis.
“Having worked in the mammography field for more than 20 years, I already knew what I’d do if it ever happened to me,” Connor explained.
Knowing that additional surgery would be required on the other breast as part of reconstruction down the road, as well as believing that it could potentially lower her risk of developing new cancer, made a double mastectomy the right choice for her.
Trusting the science
Advances in breast cancer testing and typing can help predict a patient’s risk of recurrence. A sample of Ginger’s tumor was examined using MammaPrint, a genomic test that analyzes the activity of certain genes in early-stage breast cancer. Connor also underwent Foundation One genomic profiling, a method that uses next-generation sequencing that looks at more than 300 cancer-related genes to detect the four main classes of alterations known to drive cancer growth. Both of these tests identified Connor as being at low risk for her cancer coming back.
Because her cancer was invasive and due to her experience in the field, Connor had fully expected to need chemotherapy after her mastectomy. But she trusted the science behind the testing – and she trusted her oncologist, Stacy Telloni, MD, MPH, even more. They briefly discussed radiation treatments but decided that it was unnecessary based on Connor’s low recurrence risk and the fact that her breasts had been removed.
“Knowing what I know, it was a little hard to lay the decision to not do radiation or chemo to rest. But I believe in the medicine and trust my team, so it was the right thing to do,” Connor said.
The emotional and physical aftermath
Connor was relieved that her breast cancer was caught early, treated quickly and determined to have a low risk of returning. But coping with the aftermath of her diagnosis and double mastectomy was still understandably traumatic.
As she put it, “Seeing yourself without something you’ve had for 48 years leaves you feeling vulnerable and broken. I felt like I had aged 10 years in that one month and all those unfamiliar emotions slapped me in the face more than once.”
Reconstruction was a year-long process that included painful tissue expanders, physical therapy to help with loss of motion and muscle spasms and finally, implants. Connor describes this period of “growing breasts back” as being harder than the mastectomy itself. There were also a bevy of meds that made her menopausal and surgery to remove her ovaries.
Getting back to “normal” was difficult for Connor. She realizes now that she rushed everything in an effort to make those around her feel better.
“By protecting everyone else, it’s easy to neglect yourself,” she said.
Looking ahead – and what she’s learned
Connor is three years out now, and she’s feeling pretty good about things. She’s not experiencing any side effects and looking in the mirror is comfortable again. She has an annual breast MRI and meets with Telloni (her oncologist) every six months. She will continue on her medication regimen for 10 years.
Recently promoted to her current role as supervisor of Ambulatory Mammography and Ultrasound for Duke Health, Connor’s breast cancer experience has given her a unique perspective. She truly understands the roller coaster of emotions that patients feel when they receive the diagnosis, and she spends a lot of time sharing her story with them.
“I’ve always been in the field of helping people,” she said. “I can do that on a higher level now and it’s actually part of how I cope with what has happened to me. I do a lot of ‘show and tell’ – and that helps other women make decisions and realize that they really can be okay.”
Connor has an 18-year-old daughter and is already passing on the lessons she’s learned.
“I’m teaching her to learn about her own body, to be comfortable doing self-exams. It’s amazing what a woman’s body can do – like birthing a baby – but our bodies go through many changes and we have to be aware of them, so we’ll know when something is wrong," she shared.
Her advice to other women? Know your body, trust your intuition and follow screening recommendations. Connor wants to remind others of all the advances in imaging (3D mammograms, for example, can detect tumors three to four years earlier than traditional scans), testing, treatment and research. She also wants to send the message that if you are diagnosed with breast cancer, there’s plenty of reason to hope.
“We tiptoe around cancer, especially breast cancer. But it isn’t an automatic death sentence anymore," she said. "Don’t let it consume you and don’t give up.”