Stories of breast cancer patient strength, progress of survivorship

Dr. Polly Niravath
Dr. Polly Niravath

“You are all inspirations to those of us who have the privilege of taking care of you!”

These are the proud words I spoke recently while addressing a room of breast cancer survivors at the annual Harris Health System luncheon, jointly sponsored by Harris Health, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

As a Baylor College of Medicine faculty member in the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center, I have the great privilege of taking care of under and uninsured women seeking care through the Harris Health System’s Smith Clinic.

Recognizing strength

Every year I look forward to speaking at this event, especially during a month – National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — where we recognize the significant strides we have made in the fight against breast cancer. Survivor rates are at an all-time high – 89 percent.

As I looked across that little room packed full of 150 survivors, there was a whole lot of strength. These were the women (and men) I see in my office every day. These are the people who go through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal therapy not only bravely, but also with beautiful smiles on their faces.

The treatment may take away their hair, but it does not take away their beauty or strength.

Many of my patients continue to work during their treatment, and they do not have easy jobs like me – they are often cleaning houses, cooking, cheering on their kids at track meets, watching over their elderly parents or caring for their entire family. They give 110 percent so that they can be the amazing wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters that they are.

I thought of so many patients with incredible stories that I could share with the room, but I chose just one.

Honoring true fighters

Breast cancer survivors at the annual Harris Health System luncheon pose for a photo.
Breast cancer survivors at the annual Harris Health System luncheon pose for a photo.

She had already beaten leukemia after being diagnosed at just 14 years old, already gone through chemotherapy and radiation for that. Then, a few years later, she developed breast cancer, and it was unfortunately not curable.

This woman is such a fighter. Just like she made it through her leukemia, she is making it through her breast cancer. Under my care and other doctors in the county, she has battled through multiple chemotherapies, targeted agents, and hormonal therapy over the years.

And now here we are, 17 years from her diagnosis of breast cancer, and she is still going – and going strong! She was very proud to see her son off to college a few years ago, she saw her daughter get married, and she even found herself a new man! She has started her own business as a fashion designer. This past weekend, she put on a big fashion show and I was in the front row cheering her on amongst the loudest.

It is these celebrations that we all savor – these victories against the odds, when a woman with metastatic breast cancer continues to live her life to the fullest – because she can!

And more and more women with breast cancer are able to move on beyond their breast cancer, to all the bigger and better things that they were destined to do.

Appreciating progress

But I couldn’t end my speech without recognizing the progress we have made over the last year with the opening of the brand new Harris Health System Smith Clinic – thanks to a large and generous donation from the Lester and Sue Smith Foundation.

Now we are doing 70,000 mammograms a year, compared to 47,000 last year, which is a whopping 49 percent increase! In July of last year, women were waiting an average of 58 days from an abnormal mammogram until the time of the biopsy, but we are now down to an average of only three days! We also have breast MRI machines so that we can more accurately diagnose our patients, and find cancers earlier. All of this has led to more early stage diagnosis, which means that we are able to achieve more cures with less treatment!

Looking ahead, I know that all of these advances will tremendously benefit the daughters and granddaughters of my current patients. In the very near future, I know that I will be seeing less and less women with advanced stage, incurable breast cancer because of these amazing tools we now have at hand. Now that is definitely something to celebrate!

-Dr. Polly Niravath, assistant professor in the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center, director of the breast cancer survivor’s clinic at the Harris Health System’s Smith Clinic

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