Issue 4 Stories

The Fight Becomes Real

A Young Woman Faces Breast Cancer With Courage, Faith, Friends and a Touch of Humor

Cancer has been a part of Dani Antol’s life for as long as she can remember. With a strong family history of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, she has many loved ones who have both overcome and succumbed to these diseases. Her maternal grandmother, for example, survived a first bout of breast cancer in her 40s, but died at age 56 after the disease returned. So when Antol was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2015—just three weeks after turning 30—she knew she had to fight aggressively.

“I feel like I have always been surrounded by breast cancer and have really always felt an urge to be a part of the fight,” Antol wrote in her blog, “The Big C in My Double Ds,” which details her journey with breast cancer. “I wasn’t really meaning to be this close to it.”

Personalized Care

The co-owner of Rock Paper Scissors on Charlottesville’s historic Downtown Mall, Antol had spent the last year of her 20s thinking about growing her business and saving money for a house. Life was good, and she felt healthy and strong.

Even so, when Antol felt a lump in her left breast on Aug. 28, 2015, she didn’t ignore the potentially worrying sign. Instead, she went to her doctor, who referred her to Sentara Martha Jefferson’s Breast Health Services, where she underwent an ultrasound, diagnostic mammogram and biopsy. On Sept. 9, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Thankfully, the disease was caught at an early stage.

Antol’s breast care team, which included a dedicated breast surgeon, plastic surgeon and medical oncologist, carefully explained her diagnosis and treatment options.

“We try to break down a patient’s diagnosis for them in the context of their family history and their general baseline health, and we explain everything step by step,” says medical oncologist Erika Struble, MD. “We try to help patients understand the benefits and risks of their treatment options. Every person is different, so we personalize the conversation and try to clarify what their disease means for their specific situation.”

One of the first steps of Antol’s care plan included genetic testing and counseling at Sentara Martha Jefferson, both due to her young age and family history of breast cancer. Though several women on one side of her family carry the BRCA gene mutation, which is known to increase the risk of breast cancer, Antol’s test results revealed that she does not carry the mutation, or any other known genetic mutations associated with breast cancer.

Two of Antol’s options for removing the tumor included lumpectomy (a procedure to remove just the tumor and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue) or unilateral mastectomy (removal of just the affected breast). After tracing her family’s history of cancer, however, she decided to have a bilateral mastectomy, also called a double mastectomy, to decrease her chances of recurrence. She emphasizes that while she believes that was the right choice for her situation, patients must weigh the options to determine the best fit for their individual circumstances.

“I did a chart of my family history with cancer, and it seemed that most of the women in my family who had just done a unilateral mastectomy had a recurrence of cancer and passed away from that second round,” Antol says. “Those who had opted for a double mastectomy were still living, so that helped support my decision. If it meant a greater chance of survival in the long run, I wanted my treatment to be as aggressive as possible.”

“Double mastectomy was the decision that worked best for me, considering factors such as my family history of breast cancer, my mental state and the details of my specific case of cancer,” she adds. “Plus, I was single and had no kids, and my work was at a place that enabled me to take some time off. I decided that I would rather get it over with at once, rather than possibly having to go back into another big surgery down the road.”

During Antol’s bilateral mastectomy procedure, her plastic surgeon also started the reconstruction process by implanting breast expanders, which are small bags of saline that would be gradually pumped up to the desired size for reconstruction. Her doctors also confirmed during surgery that the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes.

After surgery, Antol’s tumor was sent for genomic testing, which examines the genes in the cancer cells to gauge the risk for recurrence or new breast cancers. The risk was considered to be intermediate, so Dr. Struble recommended that Antol undergo chemotherapy. Unfortunately, chemo can decrease women’s chances for future pregnancies, so Dr. Struble referred Antol to Sentara Martha Jefferson Reproductive Health Services to explore her options for fertility preservation. Antol was able to delay chemo long enough to go through the process of daily hormone injections, which stimulated her ovaries to produce mature eggs. The eggs were then extracted and frozen for future use.

“Fertility is an important part of a young woman’s life, and unfortunately chemotherapy may decrease fertility,” Dr. Struble says. “So when we have the opportunity to offer options for preserving fertility, it often encourages patients to open up to their complete treatment plan. We’re fortunate at Sentara Martha Jefferson to have access to fertility preservation services right here in the same building as Breast Health Services. Proximity isn’t the only thing that matters, but because we’re all close together and we all know each other, it makes the process smooth and seamless.”

Antol completed chemotherapy in February 2016 and had her final breast reconstruction procedure in April 2016. For the foreseeable future, she also is taking tamoxifen, a drug used to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancers like hers.

A Caring Community

Though Antol certainly was impressed with the experience and expertise of the breast care providers at Sentara Martha Jefferson, she ultimately decided to seek treatment there because of the hospital’s reputation for compassionate caregiving and its close-knit atmosphere. From the time of her diagnosis to the moment she rang the Infusion Center’s brass bell to celebrate her final chemo treatment, Antol says Sentara Martha Jefferson felt like the right place to be.

“The doctors all helped me through the process, and they were super caring and attentive during every step,” says Antol, noting that her providers supported her decisions about treatments and thoroughly addressed all her concerns. “Sentara Martha Jefferson just kind of beckoned me.”

For Antol, the support of family and friends—especially her mother—was important not only for her physical healing, but also for dealing with the emotional aspects of breast cancer. When she started losing her hair during chemotherapy, for example, she invited a small group of family and friends over to shave her head. And a few nights before her double mastectomy, family and friends once again showed support and love by throwing her a “ta-ta party.”

In a blog entry from January 2016, Antol wrote: “One lesson learned for me, it is okay to lean on friends, that is what they are there for. I feel like I’m usually the one friends lean on, and I don’t ask for help too much, so that part has been hard (asking for help) but now I get it. Help is good. Family and friends are great. And laughter well, that is freaking amazing.”

Dr. Struble points out that patients like Antol benefit from Sentara Martha Jefferson’s comprehensive breast health services, with care provided by a multidisciplinary team that includes fellowship-trained radiologists, dedicated breast surgeons, and medical and radiation oncologists. Sentara Martha Jefferson’s breast cancer patients also have access to genetic counseling, reproductive health services and plastic surgery. The hospital’s breast health navigators also help guide each patient through treatment options, as well as support services like Marianne’s Room, which provides wigs, scarves, postmastectomy prostheses and other offerings.

“Sentara Martha Jefferson offers comprehensive breast care that is provided in the Caring Tradition,” Dr. Struble says. “There’s not a single aspect that’s missing. We have all the services a patient may need to get through her journey.”

Giving Back

As an expression of her gratitude for the care she received at Sentara Martha Jefferson, Antol has been committed to giving back to the hospital. She recently joined The Women’s Committee, which raises awareness of and supports the hospital’s breast health programs through fundraising activities such as Martha’s Market, the In The Pink Tennis Tournament and the Squash Cancer Tournament.

Antol’s business also has donated funds to support Marianne’s Room, and she has connected with women newly diagnosed with breast cancer to offer emotional support and share experiences.

“I feel so honored and happy that my story and my experience can help prepare [other women] on their journey ahead,” she wrote in a blog post.

On the day of her egg extraction in January 2016, Antol recalls that a nurse she’d never met before handed her a card before the procedure, wishing her a “happy egg retrieval day” and healthy eggs for the years ahead. It was a small act of kindness that gave Antol confidence and hope for a bright, cancer-free future.

“Just makes me also realize that every step I have taken through this journey has been completely supported by all the powers around me and makes me feel like I’m definitely on the right track,” Antol wrote in her blog that evening. “I’ll take all these signs and know for sure that these eggs will definitely be taken care of and good hopes that one day I’ll be able to create little Danis (or Dannys) and not have my genes go extinct.”

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