How one woman — and three doctors using advanced technology at MidHudson Regional Hospital — took on breast cancer and won.
By Laurie Yarnell
As seen in the May/June 2019 issue of Advancing Care
n July 2017, Laura Bullock, 52, of Hyde Park, had an appointment for a routine — or so she thought — annual mammography at MidHudson Regional Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).
Though she had dense breast tissue, Bullock, who runs an online antique-and-vintage-wares shop from her home, did not have a history of breast disease. As with all on-site screenings, her mammogram was read immediately by Salvatore V. Raccuia, MD, Director of Breast and Women’s Imaging at the hospital’s Women’s Imaging Center. Part of the Redl Center for Cancer Care, it offers three-dimensional (3D) mammography to its patients, including Bullock.
Dr. Raccuia pointed out to Bullock that there were small calcium deposits in her right breast. Appearing as small white specks on imaging, they can sometimes be the first sign of cancer. “If you were my family member, I would advise you to have a stereotactic-guided needle biopsy,” Bullock recalls him saying.
When the biopsy results were received, Dr. Raccuia called to deliver the distressing news: Bullock had invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer. “He was very compassionate, but of course I was devastated,” says Bullock. A subsequent lymphnode biopsy revealed the welcome news that the cancer had not spread.
For Bullock and her husband, Dave, parents of a 17-year-old son, life had just returned to normal. Dave, 62, a retired U.S. Army colonel who works in park administration for the National Park Service, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in November. He underwent a prostatectomy, or surgical removal of his prostate, in January. By July, he was fully recovered and cancer-free, but now his wife had cancer, too.
“At first, I was inconsolable,” recalls Bullock. “I couldn’t eat or sleep and had no energy. But then I realized I had to look for the good in-between the bad stuff and grab it. That’s living, and in this way, having cancer taught me how to live.”
Breast surgeon Robert Frisenda, MD, performed a mastectomy that August; a permanent implant was also placed in her breast by plastic surgeon Lawrence Enisman, MD. Lab tests on the removed tissue revealed that her cancer, a stage 2A condition (still contained to the immediate area), was gone.
That September, Bullock met with oncologist Christine Pellegrino, MD, who recommended an Oncotype DX pathology test on her tumor to determine the best course of treatment. Results revealed that Bullock would not need chemotherapy. “I was ecstatic,” she recalls. She would, however, need to take Tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker, for the next five to 10 years. “What Laura personifies is more of the typical woman that is diagnosed today,” says Dr. Pellegrino. “We see more women who have estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer and thus don’t need chemo.”
In October, Bullock had the prophylactic removed and the left breast reconstructed. And while she must see Dr. Pellegrino every six months for blood work and an exam, the good news is that she is now considered cancer-free. “Laura is in a low-risk category,” explains Dr. Pellegrino. “The risk of her tumor recurring is in the 10-percent-or-less range.”
“Breast cancer today is not a death sentence,” says Dr. Pellegrino. “We’re in a very exciting time in oncology and the world of breast cancer,” she continues. “Every day we learn something new, and even women with metastatic breast cancer can now live years with the disease.”
Adds Dr. Raccuia: “Imaging has progressed so much; 3D mammography allows us to pick up more cancers when they are smaller and less likely to be life-threatening,” he explains. “The cure rate for these smaller cancers is very high.” In fact, a recent study concluded that 3D mammography, when used with standard digital mammograms, increased breast cancer detection by more than 40 percent.
“It’s terrifying for any woman to lose her breast,” Bullock reflects. “But I had a realization that I am not my body, and my body doesn’t define who I am.”
Today, Bullock is back to enjoying time with her family, including two mini-poodles and two guinea pigs, making pottery and collecting antique teddy bears and dolls. “Early detection is really important,” she stresses. Dr. Raccuia concurs. “Screening mammograms save lives. Anyone over 40 should have an annual screening mammogram, regardless of the presence of any symptoms,” he recommends.
“Go for a screening and evaluation, and don’t let the fear consume you,” says Dr. Pellegrino. The earlier you pay attention to something, the better the outcome. Get it done and move on.”
Visit us at MidHudson Regional Hospital, a member of Westchester Medical Center Health Network, to learn more. Advancing Care. Here.
Photos by John Halpern