Each Breast Cancer Patient's Journey is Unique
Erin Niklas began her two-year breast cancer journey with a Women’s Health checkup at Cobleskill Regional Hospital.
Niklas, 39, of Schoharie, has been a patient of the Bassett Healthcare Network all her life. She is married, the mother of two children ages 6 and 8, and an elementary school teacher.
Initially, her mammogram suggested a Stage 0 in situ cancer in one breast, but further medical imaging – including ultrasound and MRI – revealed cancer in both breasts.
When she was diagnosed, Niklas said, “I was super scared and thought ‘this is awful.’ It was rough going emotionally especially in anticipation of the chemotherapy.”
“I did not have an obvious family history of breast cancer,” Niklas said. However, genetic testing revealed a BRCA 2 mutation, which means she has a genetic predisposition for cancer, putting her at increased risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma.
Two years ago, when Dr. Ayana Allard-Picou, a board-certified surgical oncologist, joined Bassett Medical Group, she expanded the genetic testing which was being done at Bassett.
Dr. Allard-Picou discovered Stage 2A invasive ductal carcinoma in Niklas’ other breast, which means that cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent a double mastectomy with sentinel lymph node biopsies followed by immediate breast reconstruction, plus chemotherapy and radiation. She later underwent a prophylactic total abdominal hysterectomy including removal of her ovaries due to the BRCA-2 gene mutation.
In addition to a “rock star” husband, Niklas found a supportive group of “been there” friends, one who was also battling breast cancer. They refer to their “adventure” as “climbing a mountain.” She explains, “It can be difficult at times with bumps along the way until you reach the summit when you can finally see an end in sight.”
LauraLee Hernigle, 57, of Charleston, NY, is a patient of the Bassett Health Center in Cobleskill. She credits her Bassett primary care practitioner for insisting that she have annual mammograms at Cobleskill Regional Hospital.
In August 2019, the radiologist detected a suspicious mass. An ultrasound in September led to a biopsy, which confirmed a diagnosis of a HER2-Positive breast cancer, a type of breast cancer that affects 20 percent of patients. This type of cancer tends to be more aggressive and patients benefit from chemotherapy as well as a particular drug which specifically targets this receptor.
Two days later, Hernigle had a port put into her chest and she began her 24 treatments of weekly chemotherapy to shrink the tumor in her breast before her surgery.
Her chemotherapy lasted three hours each session, and she spoke to many other cancer patients at the Bassett Cancer Institute’s oncology department in Cooperstown. Hernigle said, “I have met so many people who had it so much worse than I did.” Her advice is “Most importantly, keep a positive attitude. Someday you’ll get it all behind you.”
Hernigle had long hair, and her medical oncologist, Dr. Bravin, suggested that she cut her hair before it started to fall out. Because she needed four mega-doses of chemotherapy, her hair started to fall out by the second treatment. One of her sisters, a trained cosmetologist, gave her a pixie cut.
Hernigle also had genetic testing under the care of Dr. Allard-Picou, who she describes as “a wonderful surgeon with excellent bedside manner. She spent two hours with me on my first appointment explaining everything to me in detail, answering all of my questions.”
After her lumpectomy in April 2020, Hernigle received radiation treatments every day for 20 days.
“It was a one hour drive each way to Bassett Medical Center,” she said “but I can’t say enough about the oncology nurses at Bassett. They are very compassionate.”
To treat HER2+ cancer, Hernigle requires Herceptin every three weeks for one year. She began on this medicine December 2019 and looks forwards to her last treatment in December 2020.
Note: Bassett Healthcare Network protects its patients’ privacy. The two individuals agreed to share their stories to raise awareness about breast cancer.