Colleen Murray never expected to be a metastatic breast
cancer survivor at the young age of 36.
However, the lump on the upper part of her chest, which she
discovered in January 2008 at the age of 33, turned out to be more than the
benign fibrous tissue physicians thought it was.
"I had noticed the lump in 2008 but was told several times
it was only fibrous tissue, which is normal for someone my age who has not had
any pregnancies, so there’s nothing to be concerned about. At my yearly exam in
December 2009, wmy gynecologist wrote an order to get a screening mammogram,”
she says, adding that nothing suspicious was detected and that physicians
continued to say she was probably OK.
However, a trip to buy a new bra the following year set off
warning bells for Murray.
"I noticed that that skin was oddly tugging around the area
of the lump, and I made my yearly exam to see my gynecologist,” she says,
adding that her doctor decided to refer her to UC Cancer Institute surgeon
Elizabeth Shaughnessy, MD, PhD, although she didn’t think anything was wrong.
"Dr. Shaughnessy did a biopsy, and I got a call from her—two days after
Christmas—telling me that it was cancer.”
Murray says she scheduled a follow-up appointment with Dr.
Shaughnessy, and this time, her mother and aunt, who is a breast cancer
survivor, accompanied her.
"My aunt said my treatment experiences were completely
different than hers,” she says. "I had a team of multidisciplinary physicians from
the start that communicated with one another and spoke about my care regularly
to provide the best treatment plan for me. It was all laid out for me—I didn’t
have to guess about which physician to see or my next steps to take like she
Murray had an additional diagnostic mammogram and MRI
because her breast tissue was so dense and hard to image; physicians found
seven additional tumors—three on her left side, three on her right and one
underneath her left breast. Additionally, they found that the cancer had spread
to her breast bone and spine.
"They found out that I did not have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene
mutation, which is responsible for causing many breast cancer cases, and Dr.
(Elyse) Lower, my oncologist (and director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer
Center), began a treatment plan for me which included chemotherapy, surgery,
radiation and reconstruction.”
She says the initial chemotherapy eliminated the cancer in
her spine and breast bone and allowed the double mastectomy surgery, conducted by
Shaughnessy, and reconstruction to take place. She continued with radiation,
Herceptin infusions and hormone therapy, standard treatment for metastatic
There was a setback in July 2012 when a follow-up CT scan for
activity-induced asthma revealed that the lesion on her spine had grown back.
Targeted radiation therapy was administered immediately by John
Breneman, MD, and by February 2013 scans showed no evidence of cancer.
"I’m still undergoing maintenance treatment, but so far, so
good,” she says. "Thanks to my care team, I always knew what to expect. Dr.
Lower never just threw out information and expected me to act on my own.
"I thought I was going to die, but Dr. Lower explained it as
dealing with a chronic illness: First, we needed to get the cancer under control,
and then, we treat it like diabetes or heart disease with ongoing maintenance
treatments. I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”
Murray, who said she never felt sick or experienced any
symptoms, says it’s important to tell young women to push care providers if
something isn’t quite right.
"Even if it is just fibrous tissue, its better safe than sorry—see
a surgical oncologist; I’m glad I did,” she says.