Aggressive breast cancer tumor caught early
Carey Moyer, breast cancer patient, is in remission thanks to UC Irvine’s team of breast cancer specialists
December 01, 2012
Carey Moyer was 31 and still a newlywed when she felt a lump in her right breast in January 2010.
"It felt like a rock, but it didn’t hurt when I touched it," Moyer recalls. "So, of course I went online." She found little reassurance. When her gynecologist felt the lump, she immediately ordered a mammogram.
The diagnosis: Moyer’s tumor was stage III breast cancer, meaning that the cancer cells had also spread to her lymph nodes.
Moyer and her husband walked back to their car, reeling and wondering what the next step would be. Because tumors in young women tend to be more aggressive and fast-growing, it was important to act quickly.
"At that point, I was in shock," she says. "My tumor was more than 2.5 inches. It was pretty big."
The Irvine couple turned to a brother-in-law, an orthopedic surgeon with some Orange County medical connections, one of them being UC Irvine plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Kobayashi.
"He called Dr. Kobayashi and asked, ‘If someone in your family had breast cancer, who would you go to?’" Kobayashi recommended Dr. Karen Todd Lane, clinical director of the UCI Health Breast Health Center, which is part of UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center.
Although Moyer explored many treatment options in the region, she ultimately settled on Lane and the Breast Health Center team, in part because of the reassurance they gave her. "Dr. Lane was the first doctor who said, ‘You’re going to be fine. We’re going to beat this.’ No one else said that."
Lane introduced her to Dr. Leonard S. Sender, the cancer center’s director of clinical oncology, who told Moyer about a clinical trial he felt would be perfect for her type of cancer. Avastin, a drug that blocks the growth of new blood vessels, is generally used only in cases in which cancer has spread. This clinical trial was a test of the drug’s effectiveness on initial tumors, giving Moyer access to an expensive drug that she wouldn’t have had access to elsewhere.
"I knew you should go to the top medical center that does clinical trials, because that means they’re at the top of their game," Moyer says. "They’re at the cutting edge. So it was a pretty easy decision to come here."
Because chemotherapy can affect a woman’s fertility, the couple needed to decide whether they wanted to have children before Moyer could begin treatment. The answer was yes, so she went to a fertility clinic and had nine embryos frozen.
Next Moyer began a 12-week course of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. Her nose bled. The steroids she took to make the chemotherapy more effective and minimize nausea made her hungry and unable to sleep. The chemotherapy itself gave her hot flashes, eye twitches, sore throats and dulled her sense of taste. Then her hair fell out.
"That was the worst part," Moyer recalls. "I was sick, but now everyone could tell I was sick. I had that cancer look."
Moyer’s sadness over losing her hair was short-lived. Once it began to grow back, the phone rang. Ken Paves, a celebrity hairstylist who has styled the tresses of Heather Locklear, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion, among others, was looking for cancer survivors to receive makeovers for an infomercial. Moyer had applied; the call was to let her know that she’d been accepted.
Paves dyed Moyer’s ash brown hair blond and added long, blond extensions. Her husband and sisters were there for the big reveal when the makeover was complete. "They asked my husband what he thought, and he said I looked the way I did on the day he married me."
When Moyer’s course of chemotherapy was complete, Lane removed 12 lymph nodes from under her right arm and performed a single mastectomy. Kobayashi then performed reconstructive surgery with an implant.
Tests performed on the excised tissue showed that Moyer’s tumor was 90% dead, an excellent response to her chemotherapy. To destroy any remaining cancer cells, she needed radiation therapy—33 sessions, to be exact.
That may sound like a lot, but Moyer sees it differently. "If you make it through chemo, then radiation is a breeze."
In November, Moyer got good news: Her cancer was in remission. A subsequent mammogram showed that her remaining breast is healthy.
Moyer isn’t taking anything for granted, though. She plans eventually to have her left breast removed and replaced with an implant.
"If I got cancer again, I would just be so upset with myself for not getting it removed," she says. "I’m always afraid of new cancers, but you can’t live your life like that. It’s time to move on, but still remember what I went through."
Moyer’s diagnosis has given her a new mission in life: she wants to help others and give them the same kind of support that she was fortunate enough to have while going through treatment.
During chemotherapy, Moyer bonded with Stefanie Reynolds, another patient going through cancer treatment at UC Irvine Medical Center. The shared experience made them fast friends.
Reynolds told Moyer to expect to lose her hair around week three, preceded by a headache.
"Sure enough, my head starts aching and my hair starts falling out right when she said it would," Moyer recalls. "Having Stefanie there, telling me what was going to happen, just having someone to complain to—it was really great. We wanted to be able to offer that to other people."
Their experience spurred Reynolds and Moyer to start the Young Adult Cancer Sisters group, which gives young women the opportunity to discuss the unique needs and concerns of young cancer patients. The group’s monthly meetings feature peer support—which can take the form of advice, guidance or commiseration—and presentations about topics of interest to cancer patients, including acupuncture, survivorship, art therapy and diet.
Moyer, a UC Irvine psychology major and 2008 graduate of the university’s Paul Merage School of Business, recently accepted a position as a spokeswoman for SeventyK, an advocacy group started by Sender for adolescents and young adults with cancer. The group’s mission is to improve cancer care by educating patients, their families and their treatment team on the unique needs of young cancer patients.
"You have to think of your life after cancer," Moyer says. "You still have a lot of time. That’s a big part of UC Irvine and what they believe in—survivorship and continuing with a normal life."
Initially upset by the realization that cancer would always be a part of her story, Moyer has come to see herself as a cancer survivor.
"Now I see it as a good thing that’s always going to be a part of my life. If I can help others, if I can promote awareness," she says, "it’s all worth it to me."
Learn more about Dr. Mark Kobayashi ›
Learn more about Dr. Karen Todd Lane ›