Five years after being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, Felicia Black calls herself a walking miracle.
“You wouldn’t know my story by looking at me,” says Black, who had an increased risk as a pre-menopausal African-American woman and as the fifth member of her family to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
When she was just 39 years old, Black felt a lump in her breast during a self-exam while taking a shower. She thought maybe she had strained a muscle, but with her family history, she knew she needed to see a doctor.
Her family physician referred her to an area hospital, where she had a mammogram and ultrasound, but wanting to know more, she decided to get a second opinion at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
It was there where she met the first of several physicians who would make up her multidisciplinary team that would extend to the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital. As one of three satellite locations for the Siteman Cancer Center, breast cancer patients like Black can see surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and plastic surgeons all at one location on the West County campus.
“Being able to see my doctors and receive care at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital was so important to me because it was close to home and my work,” Black says. “You are already under so much stress, but the location, hospital grounds and people are very calming. It’s very family-oriented, and they have always made me feel comfortable.”
Due to her strong family history, Black underwent genetic testing, which determined that she had the BRCA1 mutation, which means that her lifetime risk of getting breast cancer was 80 to 90 percent, explains Julie Margenthaler, MD, Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center breast surgeon.
“For Ms. Black, the BRCA1 mutation meant that she not only wanted to treat her known cancer but also wanted to do everything possible to prevent a second breast cancer,” Dr. Margenthaler explains. “That is why she chose the bilateral mastectomy.”
Although not all patients choose this course of action, Black says she had no doubts about what she needed to do because she was fighting not only for herself, but also for her husband, Murphy Wair, and son, Caleb, who was only 3 years old at the time.
“I wanted to see my son become a man, and I knew I would do whatever it took so I could be there for him. He’s my only one,” she says. “Both Caleb and my husband were so important to my healing. They are why I did everything I could with the help of my doctors and everyone at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.”
“Breast cancer requires a team approach in order to have the best chance at a cure. Siteman Cancer Center has a team of physicians, including surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists, plastic surgeons, geneticists, pathologists and ancillary staff who can evaluate each patient and determine a personalized approach that will offer the highest chance for cure,” Dr. Margenthaler says.
Following her double mastectomy, Black became a patient of Ron Bose, MD, Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center medical oncologist at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital, whom she continues to see regularly today.
“Since my mother and sister had breast cancer, there have been so many advances in the treatment of breast cancer. Dr. Bose has helped guide my treatment from the beginning and has always been there for me,” she says. “He is fantastic, and I can talk about everything with him.”
Dr. Bose says Black has no signs of cancer today.
“Mrs. Black is definitely a success story more than five years out from her diagnosis,” Dr. Bose says. “If you have a strong family history, it is so important to do self exams, consider early mammograms and genetic testing. She has done all of the right things and has an excellent prognosis.”
In addition to Drs. Margenthaler and Bose, her team of Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center physicians included radiation oncologist Imran Zoberi, MD, and breast reconstructive surgeon Marissa Tenenbaum, MD.
“I always felt like my doctors really talked to one another, and I never had to tell my story each time,” Black says. “They always knew what was going on with me.”
As her breast reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Tenenbaum agrees that being able to work closely with her colleagues at the Siteman Cancer Center is beneficial to the patient and their continuum of care. “Mrs. Black went through so much but has done very well. She has a very strong family and support system and has always kept a positive attitude,” Dr. Tenenbaum says. “I continue to follow all of my patients each year, and we really start to think of them as family.”
Black says she’s grateful for the care she has received and the support from everyone in her life, including her co-workers, members of her church and pastor and, most importantly, her family.
“Now I just want to remind people how important it is to have mammograms, especially at an early age if you have a family history like mine,” she says. “Do self-exams and talk to your doctor if you find anything suspicious. I am a walking miracle, and I am still here for my husband and son.”
Related article: Knowledge is Power When it Comes to Breast Cancer Awareness with Julie Margenthaler, MD