When Deborah Gross-Madison was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, she immediately had two thoughts.
“I thought I couldn’t be taken out like this. I have my grandbabies. Come on now,” the South Holland resident said. “The second thing that came to my mind, what did I do to deserve this?”
Like many women in their 50s, Gross-Madison originally wrote off symptoms, reasoning with herself that her body was aging.
“I found myself tired more than usual, and I’m high energy,” she said. “I felt sluggish and thought maybe I was just stressed. One day I was lying down and I couldn’t catch my breath.”
She later noticed two changes — a lump and an overall different look to her body — that left her concerned.
“One day I was changing my clothes and I noticed my breast was looking different,” Gross-Madison said. “I touched it and knew something wasn’t right.”
Just after turning 52, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that occurs when the three most common types of receptors known to fuel most breast cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone and the HER2 protein — are not present in the tumor.
Because the tumor cells lack these necessary receptors, common treatments used in the fight against cancer may not be effective.
When Gross-Madison’s primary physician delivered her diagnosis, she said she felt as though she was having an out-of-body experience.
“It was something where I never thought those words would be said to me,” she said. “I kept crying for two weeks, but then I thought, ‘You gotta get it together and fight.’”
For patients like Gross-Madison, a breast cancer diagnosis can be devastating. Dr. Ivy Abraham, a hematologist and oncologist on staff at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial said caring for a breast cancer patient involves attention to the entire individual, not just the disease.
“When reviewing treatment options with my patients, I always include a discussion of their goals for therapy, their concerns about quality of life and their support system as important components of their treatment plan,” Abraham said.
Because cancer affects patients in every aspect of their lives, physically and emotionally, it is essential to address treatment in a holistic way, Abraham said.
At UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital, where Gross-Madison received treatment, offering this holistic approach helped her come to terms with the emotions she would experience on her journey that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Like many cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy treatment, Gross-Madison lost her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. As someone who owns an online fashion boutique and strives to make women feel good about themselves, she found it difficult when she began to look differently.
“I never thought I would not feel sexy,” Gross-Madison said. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t know who she was. I saw my smile, dimples and big personality, but I didn’t know who I was.”
Experiencing depression and anxiety are common in patients who have been diagnosed with any type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Dr. Mary Nicholson, regional director of Breast Imaging Services for Community Healthcare System, said to help meet the needs of a patient — and that patient’s family — when someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, the patient is assigned a certified breast care navigator. The breast concierge assists with meeting the various needs of mind, spirit and body that occur as the necessary care or treatment is administered.
“It is comprehensive, supportive care for one’s self, and one’s family as well, regarding the important physical, psychological and social needs that accompany the breast cancer diagnosis,” Nicholson said.
For Gross-Madison, using her experience to help others is now her primary focus.
After receiving treatment that included removing the tumor, she has begun taking a chemotherapy pill that will be part of her ongoing treatment plan for the next five years.
She is chronicling her journey in a new book that will be called “From Yellow to Pink,” which is based on her bee-themed boutique’s name and the color that symbolizes breast cancer awareness.
“I’m gradually getting that person back, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be that same person again,” she said.
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