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My Life Story and How I Survived Triple Negative Breast Cancer

Flippin to a Cure Regina Head Shot PhotoAs a podiatrist in Milwaukee, I work very hard to help people stay healthy and on their feet.  Never did I think that I would be knocked off my own feet with a diagnosis of breast cancer.  Life is full of challenges, and I certainly had my share.

With dreams and hope for success, I was raised in a lower-income neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee.  An ambitious spirit propelled me to achieve honors in high school and, later, pursue an academic career at Christian Brothers University where I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Sciences and Respiratory Care in 1991.  Subsequently, I obtained a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine degree from Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine in 2000.   Now, I am the owner of Urban Foot Care Center and practice podiatric medicine in Milwaukee, Chicago, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to serving as medical director of Urban Foot Care Surgical Center.

The path to where I am now reflects one of my favorite quotes:

The measure of a man is not where he stands in comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of trouble. ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both of my parents passed away within one year while I was in high school.  As an undergraduate, I had to work three jobs at times.  Even during a full schedule pursuing my podiatry degree, I worked full-time as a respiratory therapist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

My tenacity to fight for my dreams met it’s ultimate challenge in 2010.  With a diagnosis of breast cancer, I was then fighting for my life.  It was after a fun-filled Labor Day weekend, when I felt a lump in my breast.  The lump was less than a centimeter in diameter, so I remained optimistic that  it was caught early and the outcome would be okay.  Unfortunately, even with no family history of cancer, I was diagnosed with the rare and deadly type of breast cancer called Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC).

Triple Negative Breast Cancer gets its name from the fact that this type of breast cancer lacks one of the three protiens (estrogen, progesterone, and HER/2) found on most breast cancer tumors.  Therefore, it does not respond to targeted treatments and does not benefit from hormonal therapy.  TNBC can be treated with chemotherapy.  This disease is also three times more likely to occur in African-American women before the age of 40.  It is more aggressive and has a higher recurrence rate.

All my life, I’ve been an advocate for my own health and the health of others.  I really thought I was on top of things by getting yearly mammograms.  So when I was told on September 13th that I had TNBC, I was temporarily paralyzed and had to draw, once again, upon my inner strength.  The news ahead was devastating, but I remained positive.

A lumpectomy was performed to remove the tumor, followed by 6 months of chemotherapy.  The surgery showed that the cancer was also in my lymph nodes, elevating my diagnosis to a Stage 2A, Grade 3 status.  Throughout my treatments, I was so sick that I could only work occasionally.  At one point, I was at the hospital every day for IV fluids.  Eventually, I elected to undergo a bilateral mastectomy and was given a cancer-free diagnosis after chemotherapy.

At my side, showering me with love and support then and now, is my husband Eric Bland.  When my hair started falling out in clumps due to my chemo, I shaved my head.  What he told me was that my hair only hid my true beauty.  I am so blessed to have great friends and family who have all been equally supportive.

After my diagnosis, I became concerned about the health disparities that exist with triple negative breast cancer.  As a doctor myself, I had never heard of TNBC and learned that it was a disease no one was talking about.  This lead me to raise awareness of TNBC especially in under-served and under-represented communities.  Consequently, Flippin To A Cure® was birthed.

Not only a health crisis, this disease brings about a crippling financial burden to the people affected by it.  One of my shots alone cost over $3,000.  Who can afford that when you are sick and cannot work, I thought.  At-risk and low income women are having to make a choice between food and medical care.  This is why I decided to help others directly so that they can focus on the job of healing rather than the financial impact to their families.

As a spiritual person, I believe God puts us in the middle of things so that we can help others.

I believe that when God takes us through challenges, He is taking us TO something greater.

I’ve experienced this.  I’ve lived it.  I should’ve been a statistic, but I am not.  I am a breast cancer survivor.  Now, I am fighting to help save other women’s lives.

The Groundbreaking Discovery of Triple Negative Breast Cancer in Women of African Decent

dr olopadeThere is a belief in the cancer community that the reason poor African-American women are getting triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is because they delayed getting their cancer diagnosis. Through the groundbreaking genetic work of Dr. Olufunmilayo “Funmi” Olopoda, it was found that the reason many young black women where dying of TNBC is because they carried a genetic mutation for the disease and lack access to appropriate medical care.  This discovery was hardly known in cancer research until Dr. Olopoda brought it to the attention to the medical community.

Born in Nigeria to an Anglican minister and a homemaker, Olopade came to the United States in 1982 to complete her residency at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital.  Later, she joined the faculty at the University of Chicago as a professor of medicine and human genetics.  It was during a trip home to Nigeria when she noticed many women dying of breast cancer were so young.  She observed the same thing happening with her patients in Chicago and began to wonder if there was a link between breast cancer genetics and being of African decent.

In 1991, Olopade opened her own lab in Chicago and began to study the genetic predisposition of breast cancer.  The following year, she founded the Cancer Risk Clinic at the University of Chicago to test genes susceptible to cancer in high-risk individuals.  Olopada went back to Nigeria to examine genetic patterns of breast cancer there.  It was in 2009 when she published her groundbreaking discovery that the majority of tumors in African women with breast cancer were triple-negative tumors.  This aggressive type of breast cancer grows rapidly and does not respond to the low-cost treatments in the area.  She realized that, for some of  these women, it was not a delay in getting a cancer diagnosis, but that they were carriers of the mutated gene. Olopada concluded that the suggested mammogram screenings and current first-line treatments might not be the best way to control breast cancer in Africa.

During the 2007 Breast Cancer Symposium, Dr. Olopada stated that when we consider race as a factor that influence breast cancer, “we should be thinking not only about color, but also about ancestry.  For example, a patient may be African American, but her genetic material may be more European than African.  Thus, we need to turn to a patient’s ancestry, not race, to provide reliable information about genetic material and breast cancer risk.”

Triple Negative Breast Cancer gets it’s name from the fact that it lacks the 3 common proteins (estrogen, progesterone, and HERS2) found on most breast cancer tumors.  It does not respond to hormone therapy.  Chemotherapy is currently the only treatment option.  TNBC is more aggressive and has a high recurrence rate.  Dr. Olopada says, “African-American women under the age of 35 have a 50% greater risk of developing breast cancer than white women of the same age group.  This risk plateaus around the age of 50, and African-American women over age of 50 have less risk of developing breast cancer than white women.”

Dr. Olopada and other cancer researchers are now exploring a possible connection between genetics and the environment that may trigger the disease.  They believe that breast cancer may be triggered from such things as exposure to prolonged stress, toxins, and obesity.

Women of African decent must know their risk.  Current screening guidelines, such as an annual mammogram beginning at age 40, are based on data drawn from Caucasian women.  This is clearly too late for some women.  A diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer is not death sentence.  TNBC can be treated successfully.  The earlier the detection, the better.

References:

Biologic Differences in Breast Cancer Across Diverse Populations: An Expert Interview With Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade; Medscape

The Breast Cancer Nobody is Talking About; Oprah.com

Cancer Knows No Borders; The Scientist.com

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Exercise Cuts Risk of Triple Negative Breast Cancer in Black Women; Get Your Feet Ready with 5 Foot Care Tips

FTAC Exercise Cuts risk of TNBCThe Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), which is funded by the National Cancer Institute, recently found that black women who exercised vigorously for at least 3 hours per week on a regular basis had a 47% reduced risk of developing estrogen-receptor (ER)-negative breast cancer, compared with those who exercised an average of 1 hour per week.  ER-negative breast cancers include HER2-positive and triple-negative tumors.  Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) targets young, African-American women more that any other racial group.  It  is an aggressive subtype of breast cancer that is linked to a higher mortality rate in blacks.  Knowing that exercise can protect against breast cancer is an important health finding to understand this disparity.

“We all want to do what we can to reduce our risk of disease and improve our health, and, along with other well-known benefits, we now show that exercise can possibly stave off the development of potentially lethal breast cancer in black women,” says BWHS coleader Lucile Adams-Campbell, PhD, professor of oncology and associate director of minority health and health disparities research at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC.

This was the first study to look at exercise and the molecular subtypes in black women.  Agreeing with Dr. Adams-Campbell, “Knowing that exercise may protect against breast cancers that disproportionately strike black women is of great public health importance.”  The finding is also important in non-black women because of the high mortality associated with ER-negative breast cancer in general.

Lack of Exercise Due to Foot Pain

As a podiatrist at Urban Foot Care Center in Milwaukee, my goal is to keep people on their feet so that they can exercise.  Sometimes the reason a person cannot perform weight-bearing exercises is because of foot problems.  Obesity places an extra load on the feet that can lead to arch and heel pain.  Arthritis can also affect foot joints causing pain, stiffness, and swelling.  Bone deformities, like bunions and hammertoes, can get irritated from shoes.

Foot pain can be a hindrance to a person’s work out plan.  There are ways to keep your feet moving vigorously to reap the benefits of exercise. Here are are few.

5 Foot Care Tips for Pain-Free Exercise

  1. Wear an arch support.  Pressure from an increase load on the feet can lead to inflammation in the arch and heel.  Try wearing an arch support or insole to relieve and protect your feet from pain and injury.  If necessary, ask your doctor about custom foot inserts.
  2. Stretch and Massage.  Before exercising, pull your foot backward in order to stretch the plantar fascia ligament at the bottom of the feet.  You can use a towel or elastic band to help pull the foot.  While standing, lean against a wall and move your leg back in order to flex your foot.  Massage your feet regularly to improve circulation and ease any soreness.
  3. Try non-weight bearing exercises.  Give your feet a break by choosing exercises that do not bear weight on your feet like cycling and swimming.  Don’t forget to move your arms and exercise your upper body.
  4. Wear the appropriate shoe for the activity.  You can wear running shoes for walking, but a walking shoe for running may not give you enough support.  Wearing the a right shoes for the activity is best.
  5. Care for toenails and calluses.  Toenails that are too long or thick, can cause harm to your feet.  Calluses can be painful if allowed to thicken.  Keep toenails and calluses trimmed to keep your feet comfortable.  If you have diabetes, poor circulation, or loss of feeling in your feet, it is best to visit a podiatrist for foot care.

Exercise benefits our health in many ways.  We’ve just learned how it can reduce the risk of triple negative breast cancer.  So, get your feet ready for your work-outs and take active steps to stay healthy and cancer free.

Reference: Exercise Cuts Risk for Aggressive Breast Cancers in Blacks, Medscape

Turning lemons into pink lemonade 2

Turning Lemons Into PINK Lemonade: 5 Ways to Develop Strength and Resilience

If you’re feeling like you’ve been given a lemon of a life, there is cause not to feel sour about it.  The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens is resilience.  You have to be able to bounce back after you’ve been squeezed, pressed, or knocked down.  After my battle with triple negative breast cancer, I made up my mind to KNOCK OUT Breast Cancer.

How do survivors make a come back?  An recent article from Forbes entitled “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid” provided an essential list which inspired me to create my own.  If you are going through breast cancer or any other trial, here are 5 ways to turn your lemons into “pink” lemonade.

1. UNDERSTAND LIFE IS NOT FAIR.  We all feel this at some point, right?  Be aware that there is a lesson to be learned in life, no matter how difficult the trial may be.  The important thing is that you do not feel sorry for yourself.  The life you are living has a story.  When something unexpected happens, the plot simply changes.  Continue to live.

2.  FOCUS CONTROL ON YOUR ATTITUDE.  The only thing that you can control is your own response and attitudeSo, don’t worry about the things that you cannot control.  Focus your energy on becoming a stronger and healthier you.

3. LIVE IN THE PRESENT AND HOPE IN THE FUTURE.  Yes, you can learn a lot from the past, but don’t dwell on it.  You must take care of the present and never lose hope for a positive outcome.

4. LEARN TO CHANGE.  Growth involves change.  Every challenge provides an opportunity to grow.  You have to make the decision to change whether it is a healthier diet, exercise, or attitude.

5. NEVER GIVE UP.  Every failure or disappointment is another chance for something better.  Don’t quit.  Don’t give in.  Keep up the fight.

Self development is important.  But don’t forget to surround yourself with others that help keep you strong.  Positive friends can sweeten your life when things aren’t going so well.  Stay strong and become RESILIENT!