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Survivor beats breast cancer, not once but twice

October 13, 2021 | Valerie Elwell
Two-time breast cancer survivor LeeAnn Brill embraces her UCI Health oncologist, Dr. Rita Mehta.

A tearful LeeAnn Brill hugs medical oncologist Dr. Rita Mehta upon learning that she didn't need chemotherapy or radiation after her second bout with breast cancer. "She told me, 'Go live your life!' I can do that now."  Photo by Michael Brill.

LeeAnn Brill first came to UCI Health in 2015 when she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer in her right breast. Determined to find the best care and most advanced treatments possible, the registered pharmacist used her considerable research skills.

She soon discovered that her home state of Nevada didn’t have a comprehensive cancer center certified by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

“That’s when I decided to seek treatment at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center,” Brill says.

After more research and reference checks, she chose surgical oncologist Dr. Karen Lane, clinical director of the UCI Health Breast Health Center, and medical oncologist Dr. Rita Mehta, a national leader in breast cancer treatment.

She calls them co-captains of “Team LeeAnn.”

A challenging course of treatment

Brill’s battle with stage IIIc inflammatory, hormone-receptor negative breast cancer — which occurs in only 1% to 5% percent of patients — was challenging on two fronts.

There were the actual treatments: a course of chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor, then a mastectomy followed by radiation treatments.

But all of that required grueling, 500-mile roundtrip treks between Henderson, Nev., and UCI Medical Center in Orange for protracted stays.

“I logged many miles and many hotel nights, even spending nine weeks in Orange County to have radiation during the holiday season of 2015,” she recalls. “My husband’s job didn’t allow him to be away for an extended period, so I spent most of that time without him.”

Angels to the rescue

Brill and her husband Mike soon realized that not only had they found some of the finest doctors in the country, but also the best nurses, support staff and volunteers.

When UCI Health clinical social worker Jennifer Higgins discovered they were driving in from Nevada, she enlisted the help of cancer center volunteer Bob Griffith, who contacted Angel Flight West, a volunteer network of pilots.

“By her third treatment, she and Mike were flying in, rather than driving,” Griffith says. More than a dozen pilots donated their time, money and planes to ferry the couple back and forth.

Brill knew no one in Orange County when she first went to UCI Health. By the time she was undergoing radiation treatments, she’d been adopted by hospital employees, volunteers and even hotel employees who “cared for me as if I were their own.”  

They made sure she was never alone and never wanted for anything, including dinners, Christmas presents, clean clothes and, of course, friendship.

UCI Health breast cancer survivor Leeann Brill thanks her UCI Health team in 2016. 
LeeAnn Brill thanks 'Team LeeAnn,' who helped her fight a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.

Leaving nothing to chance

A week after her mastectomy in September 2015, Brill was scheduled to have her incision checked. She was also on pins and needles waiting to learn whether her tumor had spread.

"When Dr. Lane opened the exam room door, she had a big smile on her face." Brill recalls. "I noticed a piece of paper in her hand and I asked if it was the pathology results. She started to dance around and said she'd called Dr. Mehta that morning to tell her, 'We did it! We did it! The pathology report shows no evidence of cancer!' "

It meant that all of the tumor had been removed during surgery. But neither Lane nor Mehta would let up given the aggressive nature of her cancer. Brill would not only undergo a course of radiation treatments, but also more chemotherapy.

In addition, Mehta prescribed pertuzumab and trastuzumab, monoclonal antibodies to target Brill's specific type of cancer. Later, she prescribed two years of infusions of zoledronic acid, a chemotherapy agent used to strengthen bones, the most likely location for the cancer to return.

"Dr. Mehta, who is always at the forefront of the newest treatments, said by keeping bones strong, we can many times prevent metastasis," Brill recalls. 

Round two

UCI Health breast cancer survivor Leeann Brill documents her second diagnosis with breast cancer. 
LeeAnn Brill documents her second diagnosis.

Brill continued to be closely monitored by her UCI Health physicians and underwent regular imaging tests. When a routine MRI scan detected a small mass, a biopsy was scheduled.

"On March 1, 2021 — five years and 364 days after my initial diagnosis, I learned that a suspicious mass in my left breast was cancer,” she says.

This time it was stage Ia invasive ductal carcinoma, which occurs in about 75% of patients.

Once again, Team LeeAnn sprang into action. Mehta prescribed injections of fulvestrant — a hormone therapy to block estrogen receptors in the body that may fuel breast cancer — to see if the tumor would respond. She then sent a biopsy sample for genomic analysis to learn whether chemotherapy would be beneficial.

“Dr. Mehta and I cheered when the results came back and showed that chemo would not be necessary,” she says.

Surgery No. 2

LeeAnn and Mike Brill wait for her presurgical physical at UCI Health Pacific Breast Breast Care Center in July 2021. 
LeeAnn Brill waits with her husband Mike Brill for her presurgery physical at UCI Health Pacific Breast Care Center.

Brill continued the fulvestrant shots until mid-July, then met with Lane, who recommended surgery. On July 27, Lane performed a second mastectomy along with a sentinel node biopsy to check for any spread of cancer cells to her lymph system.

A week later, Lane called with good news. “The pathology report confirmed what we had been praying for,” Brill says. “The tumor had responded to the fulvestrant and the sentinel nodes were free of cancer.”

A few days later, Mehta said she could stop the shots and didn’t need further chemotherapy or radiation. She will, however, take aromatase inhibitor tablets for at least five years to stop estrogen production and prevent the cancer from returning.

“After that news, Dr. Mehta and I embraced with tears in our eyes,” Brill says. “She said, ’Go live your life!’ I can do that now thanks to Dr. Mehta, Dr. Lane and everyone at UCI Health.”

Giving back

Brill, now 63, considers herself incredibly fortunate despite what she has endured over the last six years.

"I was blessed to get my treatment at UCI Health, where I have received excellent, kind and compassionate care from a wonderful team that treated me as part of their family. And I’ve been blessed to have doctors who have saved my life not once, but twice.”

It’s why she and her husband have volunteered for the cancer center’s Anti-Cancer Challenge every year since its inception in 2017.

“As a cancer patient whose life has been saved by research, I am eternally grateful to everyone who has participated in and donated to the Anti-Cancer Challenge,” she says. “Your gifts have made it possible for patients like me to have more time and make more memories with our families.”

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