Getting Back into the Swing After Breast Cancer

After retiring in late 2017 after a successful career with Anheuser Busch and Staples, Geri Hirsch was enjoying life and good health. She and her husband, Mark, finished construction on their winter home in Florida, where they planned to spend six months each year golfing and taking a break from the St. Louis cold weather and snow.

"I've always been proactive about my health, had all of my screenings, and have never had a health scare," Geri said.

Because her mom and two aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer after menopause, Geri was enrolled in Missouri Baptist Medical Center's Breast Cancer Risk Assessment & Genetic Counseling Program in 2016. This program provides comprehensive breast cancer screenings, genetic testing and a customized surveillance plan for patients with an increased risk of breast cancer. As part of the program, Geri received breast screening mammograms or MRIs every six months.

UNEXPECTED NEWS

When Geri went in for her annual mammogram and gynecology visit in May 2019, she celebrated negative test results and another clean bill of health.

"Even though my mammogram came back negative, my family history of breast cancer was never out of mind," she said. "I wanted to take a proactive approach about other steps I could take to help prevent a breast cancer diagnosis." In September, with the Breast HealthCare Center's support, she met with Missouri Baptist Medical Center medical oncologist, Dr. Alan Lyss, to get his advice.

"Dr. Lyss looked at my family history, and we talked about genetic testing, hormone therapy, prophylactic mastectomy and lifestyle changes. I was already living a healthy lifestyle and taking the right precautions. Still, I decided to have bloodwork drawn for genetic testing as a first step to see if I carried any of the breast cancer gene mutations." Geri recalled.

The next day she went in for her scheduled breast MRI scan that she received through the Breast Cancer Program. "I wasn't worried because my mammogram didn't show anything of concern four months earlier. After the scan, I was in high spirits."

Later that day, Geri's life changed when she got a call from the Breast HealthCare Center, telling her that they detected something suspicious in her left breast and asked her to come back for an ultrasound.

"As a woman, it's always worrisome going to get your breast screenings because you fear hearing that word, 'cancer,'" said Geri. "When I got the call that they spotted something on the MRI that wasn't on the recent mammogram, my heart sank."

Less than a week later, Geri returned to the Breast HealthCare Center for the ultrasound, which provided a closer look at the suspicious area. "The ultrasound showed that I had a solid mass, and a needle biopsy test would confirm if it was cancerous."

On October 1, Geri had a needle biopsy of the tumor, and the next day, she received the news that the mass was malignant and was triple-negative breast cancer. "The doctors and radiologists reviewed my earlier mammogram but saw no evidence of the tumor. It grew that fast in just four months," Geri said.

Because of the tumor's aggressiveness, she was quickly scheduled for appointments and tests over the next two weeks, and received the news that she would need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to treat the cancer. Geri and Mark planned to leave for Florida in mid-October but canceled their trip as they began to prepare for her surgery and treatment.

As a former marketing executive at Anheuser-Busch and a sales and operations vice president with Staples, Geri saw her diagnosis as just another challenge that needed an execution strategy.

"I’m not the kind of person to wait for things to happen. I like to research, gather information, set goals and execute,” she explained. “I had the best medical team working with me, we developed a treatment plan, and they would monitor the results and make adjustments as needed along the way.  We were committed to giving our best effort, and I was determined to maintain a positive attitude and not feel sorry for myself.

Geri started to look at her cancer diagnosis as a bump in the road that she would overcome. “My attitude shifted from why me to why not me, and from then on, I found the strength to tackle cancer head-on with dignity and strength.

MAKING THE BEST CHOICE

Geri met with MoBap breast surgical oncologist Dr. G. Paul Yazdi to discuss surgical options and to have bloodwork drawn for genetic testing, which would help determine the type of surgery she would face and her treatment plan.

“Everyone acted fast and made sure that I got in to see the medical and radiation oncologists, a plastic surgeon, as well as my primary doctor and gynecologist so everyone was on the same page and could move forward together,” Geri recalled. “I felt that I had a team at my back to help me fight this battle. Their continual coordination, sense of urgency and support gave me peace of mind.”

After her genetic tests came back negative for breast cancer genes, Geri had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and another surgery for placing a port through which she would receive chemotherapy medication. While her pathology results showed Stage I cancer with no lymph node involvement, Geri needed to start treatment as soon as possible because of the tumor's aggressiveness.

Before starting chemotherapy, Geri was undecided about where to get treatment. She investigated several other cancer centers, knowing she would have weekly visits for six months and wanted her choice to feel right. During a visit to MoBap’s gift shop between doctor appointments, she met Sylvia Manewith, Missouri Baptist Healthcare Foundation officer, and struck up a conversation over a shared love of shopping and trendy clothing.

“When Sylvia heard my story and diagnosis, she immediately offered to give me a tour of Missouri Baptist’s Cancer Center,” Geri said.  

As soon as she walked into the Center, Geri felt a sense of comfort and knew this was where she would get treatment. “The Center is spacious with big windows that let in a lot of light and overlook the healing garden. Each patient has a private pod with privacy screens, a comfy recliner and a TV. Even though I was in a hospital setting, the Center didn’t feel overwhelming. It felt more like a first-class airplane cabin instead of a chemo treatment facility. And knowing that my doctors were right across the hall provided another level of confidence and security.”

CHEMOTHERAPY

Because her breast cancer was aggressive, Geri’s doctors prescribed 16 rounds of chemotherapy infusion after her surgery to get rid of any cancer cells still in her body and lower the risk of cancer returning.

“When I learned that I would have chemotherapy, I felt my worst nightmare coming true. I envisioned being extremely sick, losing my hair and not functioning,” Geri said.

To learn everything she could before starting treatment, Geri attended a class about chemo at MoBap. After learning about advancements made in chemotherapy and various medicines available to combat side effects, she felt that her treatment didn’t have to be life-changing or completely debilitating.

“I was prepared to lose my hair and appetite and knew that I would be at greater risk for infection. Following the class, I felt calmer and realized that every treatment was giving me the chance to get my life back, and I was taking the necessary steps to help prevent cancer from recurring,” Geri explained.

To keep a positive outlook, Geri maintained her daily routine by exercising when she could, volunteering, working part-time for a local church, and eating a healthy diet. She also kept a journal where she wrote about her journey and logged questions and concerns. “I brought my journal with me to appointments to make sure that I remembered what I needed to ask and got answers.”

Geri’s chemotherapy started in November and lasted six months. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she went to her final six weeks of treatment alone, which could have been scary and lonely. However, the nurses at the infusion center became a surrogate family. “When you see the same team of nurses every week, you form a bond. They were there to reassure me, answer questions, provide snacks and beverages, offer a friendly smile, or listen if I needed to talk.” 

Her chemotherapy regimen ended on April 8, 2020, when she rang the bell. “I didn’t think ringing the bell would be so emotional, but it was, and I rang it like there was no tomorrow. With each clang, I celebrated that chemotherapy was over, and I was still standing. I felt such an appreciation for the little things in life.”

While Geri regrets that family and friends couldn’t see her ring the bell and celebrate with her because of the COVID-19 visitor restrictions, the nurses took pictures and cheered. Barb Goldberg, the Center’s cancer education specialist, recorded a video that Geri shared with loved ones. “Their compassion and support made all the difference.”

THE NEXT STEPS

After completing chemotherapy, Geri met with her medical team. She had a candid conversation with Dr. Yazdi and nurse practitioner Amy Eberhardt about additional surgical options. Because she was young (55 years old), Geri decided to have a double mastectomy.

“Without this operation, I was looking at 30 radiation therapy treatments, which I didn’t want to go through,” she said. “I also chose this surgery because I wanted to reduce further the chance of having breast cancer again.” She’s considering breast reconstruction but “will make that decision after my body’s fully healed.”

Geri had her double mastectomy on April 21, 2020. Like her chemotherapy treatments, she wasn’t allowed visitors and relied on her MoBap caregivers' support. “It was an emotional experience, but the caring team of nurses and doctors made it easier,” she said.

In late May, she began an aggressive outpatient occupational and physical therapy program at MoBap. “My goals were to improve my mobility and flexibility and be able to golf again,” she said.

RECOVERY & BLANKET MAKING

Looking back on her experience so far, Geri says it’s been very humbling. Besides losing her hair and nearly 40 pounds, she also experienced some minor swelling (lymphedema) in her arm where a lymph node was removed, and numbness (neuropathy) in her fingers and toes as side effects of chemotherapy treatment. After her double mastectomy and recovery, Geri had to rely on her husband to get dressed, prepare meals, drive, and other everyday activities.

“Mark was my rock, taking care of me every step of the way. Caregivers play a huge role in the recovery process, and it’s important to remember that a cancer diagnosis is a difficult journey for them too.”

Geri reflected that the road to recovery hasn’t been easy, but physical and occupational therapies are helping her regain strength and movement. She walks 5 miles every morning to help lessen the numbness in her toes and started making custom, 5’x5’ knotted fleece blankets to exercise her hands and help reduce the numbness she experiences in her fingers.

“Creating blankets began as a way of making and giving gifts during my chemotherapy treatments. Because of my compromised immune system and the dangers that COVID-19 poses to it, I couldn’t go shopping. This project helps me stay positive while social distancing and provides therapy to combat the residual side effects of chemotherapy in my fingers.”

As more people saw the cozy blankets she was making, Geri began receiving order requests. Now she is selling her creations and donating a portion of the proceeds to the Cancer Center at Missouri Baptist. Under her new business, Cooped-Up Creations, she is building a website to showcase her blankets and generate orders as part of an outreach program. 

“I truly believe that MoBap is the reason why I am alive today, and I want to give something back,” she explained. “Every blanket I make has two sides. One side has a patterned fleece that the recipient chooses, and the reverse side has fleece in a complementary color with a bumpy texture that serves as a reminder that life is full of bumps to persevere through.”

Thanks to her blanket making, Geri has regained a good percentage of feeling in her fingertips. She is also grateful for her therapy team, who helped her regain mobility to swing a golf club so she and Mark can resume their active lifestyle. In September, Geri got the okay to get back on the golf course – just five months after finishing treatment and surgery. Her doctors also gave her the all-clear to return to Florida for the 2020-21 winter and spring seasons.

Looking back on her experience, Geri is thankful for her MoBap health care team and their quick action. “MoBap’s Breast Cancer Risk Assessment and Genetic Counseling Program saved my life. Because of the screening that uncovered the aggressive cancer, we were able to move quickly from initial diagnosis and treatment to recovery and ultimately to a cancer-free prognosis.”

Recovery has also meant coming to terms with feelings of failure and guilt. “I kept my cancer journey somewhat private because I felt like I failed, and I wasn’t used to failing. I had a successful career, lived a healthy lifestyle, kept all routine screenings and exams, and didn’t take any meds, but cancer still found me,” Geri explained.

Even though getting cancer was out of her control, Geri felt overwhelming guilt that her diagnosis prevented the planned trip to Florida that she and Mark look forward to each year. “Out of nowhere, our plans came to a screeching halt,” she recalled. Mark helped her put the situation into perspective by reassuring Geri that she didn’t intentionally cause their trip's cancellation, and perhaps a feeling of disappointment more accurately explained what she was feeling. Geri agreed. “That simple mindset shift from guilt to disappointment lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.”

To help her work through her feelings, Geri participated in cancer resource groups and now looks at her experience differently. “Cancer touches many people, so why not me? I survived and handled everything it threw at me,” she said.  “I never realized how strong I was and how much of a fighter I am. If I can get through this, I can get through anything life throws my way!”

Throughout her journey, Geri has found it helpful to concentrate on positive moments no matter how small and take one day at a time. “When you get a cancer diagnosis, it can be all-consuming. Try to focus on the good news you receive and the end goal,” she advised. “In my case, I concentrated on milestones like finishing treatment, having surgery, rehabilitating, getting back on the golf course and enjoying our home in Florida. And with a positive outlook and the support of your medical team, family and friends, all of this will be in the rearview mirror before you know it, and life will go on.”

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