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When a diagnosis becomes personal

When a diagnosis becomes personal

As a full-time nurse practitioner, wife and busy mom of twin 7-year-old boys, Amy Eberhardt has a lot going on in her life. So she wasn't entirely surprised when she forgot to schedule her annual mammogram around her 42nd birthday.

Eberhardt, who is admittedly positive about what life hands her and always has a warm smile on her face, was sure she had nothing to worry about. She figured she'd just carry on taking care of everyone in her life, including the breast cancer patients she works with every day.

"I knew I was late in getting my mammogram, but I wasn't having any problems," said Eberhardt, WHNP, who with G. Paul Yazdi, MD, a breast surgical oncologist, and make up the breast care team for Breast Care Consultants at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. They care for patients with both cancerous and non-cancerous diseases of the breast, with a particular emphasis on acute breast problems such as high-risk lesions, breast cancer and genetic mutations. "I went in for my screening mammogram in June and, about a week later, was told the radiologist wanted to talk to me," she said. "I thought she wanted to discuss a patient, but she wanted to discuss my results."

Although they could not see the lump with the traditional 2D screening mammogram, she opted to have the newer 3D mammogram with tomosynthesis; that now showed that she was now facing something she has discussed with hundreds of patients throughout her career — a new diagnosis of breast cancer.

Facing her own diagnosis

"I had an ultrasound on a Friday, and I knew it was cancer, but nobody wanted to tell me," said Eberhardt, who started her own career at Missouri Baptist as the first breast health nurse navigator for the Breast HealthCare Center. In this role, she would have to tell patients about their breast cancer diagnosis and help them navigate their treatment.

After undergoing both an ultrasound and MRI, it was determined that Eberhardt's cancer could be anywhere from 7 mm up to 6 cm with the possible spread of the cancer to her lymph node. She would have to wait for surgery to know the extent and stage of her breast cancer.

Although there was some uncertainty about the size of her tumor, it was ultimately diagnosed as ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS. DCIS is when breast cancer cells are contained within the milk ducts of the breast. Her cancer was 2.5 cm and the lymph node showed no evidence of cancer. Even though she has no family history of breast cancer, Eberhardt did undergo genetic testing and there was no genetic mutation identified.

"By the grace of God, I had Stage 0 breast cancer. I could have had a very different experience," she said. "I was definitely shocked when I got my diagnosis. I've been attending our breast tumor conference every week for years with our team and working alongside Dr. Yazdi as he cares for his patients. Now, I am one of his patients."

In fact, the day she was diagnosed, Eberhardt called a woman who was about her same age to tell her she had breast cancer. The woman even asked Eberhardt to call her boyfriend for her because she wasn't sure how to tell him.

"Dr. Yazdi asked, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" she recalled. "I said yes because I love talking to patients. I loved it then and I love it now."

Committing to a treatment plan

Due to her diagnosis, Eberhardt's course of treatment meant she would undergo surgery to remove the cancer. There was a small chance she would only need surgery as her treatment. She would have to wait for her results from her surgery to know if her treatment would require any medications, chemotherapy or radiation. Based on her own research and nursing experience, she chose to undergo a newer procedure known as a bilateral nipple- sparing mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.

Although most Stage 0 patients are recommended to have lumpectomy and radiation or the removal of just one breast, due to the size uncertainty and low-grade nature of her breast cancer, she felt this was the best course of treatment for her personally. She prayed and hoped that her pathology would only reveal DCIS and not a more advanced cancer.

"Patients have always asked me, 'If you were being treated or it was your mom, what would you recommend?'" she said. "I honestly never thought I would want reconstruction surgery, but now here I am, and I believe I made the right decision for myself."

Although Dr. Yazdi said he would understand if she chose another surgeon, Eberhardt said there was no question that he would be her surgeon.

"I told him it has to be you, and I'm happy it has to be you," she said. "I've always told patients they are in the right place and they would receive the best care. I believe that and I had that."

Recovery with a new perspective

As she continues to navigate her own experience with breast cancer, Eberhardt said she has a new perspective, which she is happy to share with those patients who may be feeling particularly anxious. 

 "Breast cancer treatment is so individual and personal. What works for one person might not be right for another," she said. "Hopefully, I've become more empathetic and sympathetic toward my patients. I know that you will be well taken care of here at Missouri Baptist, no matter what, because we have a really good team. 

 "Being a patient here allowed me to experience the world-class care we tell others about. Everybody was supportive, and they just really care. I was blessed with support in all of my roles as navigator, a nurse practitioner, as a patient and now as a survivor. I don't say that because I was a provider but because I know they treat patients like myself wonderfully," she said.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call us at 314-996-7550.

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