A rash, a constant cough and … breast cancer?
A series of unusual symptoms led Baptist MD Anderson doctors back to a cancer diagnosis treated 17 years earlier.
Linda Clay’s symptoms were unusual, and she wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Every day, her whole body itched and burned, like her insides had turned into a pressure cooker. Blotchy, red rashes covered her skin. Soon, she developed an uncontrollable cough. Nearly a year passed — and as it did, her energy disappeared and depression set in.
Nothing Clay did could ease the feverish sensation. She tried lotions, allergy medication, cool baths. A primary care physician told her it might be anxiety or even hives. Neither sounded right to Clay.
“I just wasn’t myself. I literally thought I was dying,” Clay said. “My body was letting me know something was seriously wrong.”
Two weeks after she started seeing Jennifer Crozier, MD, a hematologist/oncologist at Baptist MD Anderson, Clay had an answer: Stage 4 breast cancer.
The symptoms Clay experienced were rare enough that she never thought to see an oncologist. The symptoms, triggered by Clay’s altered immune system and its response to the presence of cancer, were very different than what she experienced 17 years ago during her first breast cancer diagnosis.
Back then, Clay had a lumpectomy to remove a cancerous spot in her right breast. While the risk of breast cancer returning somewhere else in the body goes down each year after treatment, the risk is still present.
“You can have breast cancer in the same breast more than once,” Dr. Crozier said. “Removing the cancer by lumpectomy and taking the proper medications was doing everything right to try to prevent stage IV cancer in the future.”
But cancer isn’t always predictable. And when Clay’s returned, it had spread to her lymph nodes and her lungs.
“Since it’s outside the breast, it’s considered Stage 4,” Dr. Crozier said. “Although not curable, nowadays it is very treatable.”
Dr. Crozier and the multi-disciplinary team at Baptist MD Anderson placed Clay on a regimen of medicine that slows cell division for estrogen receptor breast cancer. Often, cancer speeds up the cell cycle — and can create uncontrollable division. The medicine, Palbociclib, can prevent those cells from multiplying.
“It’s a targeted therapy revolutionizing treatment for estrogen-driven cancer,” Dr. Crozier said. “In fact, it’s working so well we are opening a clinical trial to test a similar medication in patients with Stage 2 and Stage 3 breast cancer, to hopefully further reduce the risk of Stage 4 disease in the future.”
For Clay, the results have been phenomenal.
In a matter of months, her Baptist MD Anderson doctors have seen the disease responding on PET scans. Her lymph nodes have started to shrink to their normal size, and her blood work is showing signs of the regression.
Clay’s symptoms have improved, as well. Though she still suffers from the occasional rash, those have mostly disappeared. Her voice, still strained, is healing. Her constant cough is now what she calls a wheeze — and “I can deal with that,” she says.
Dr. Crozier says the medication regimen works an average of two years, but she will keep Clay on treatment until it no longer works.
Eventually, the former cafeteria employee at the University of North Florida would like to return to work. Before that, she worked in the dry cleaning business with her family for more than 40 years. She isn’t sure exactly where her future will take her.
At the moment, though, Clay still tires easily, and she doesn’t push it.
“When my body tells me it is time to rest, I rest,” she said.
She’s also reminding her two daughters about their own breast cancer screenings. Dr. Crozier recommended the Baptist MD Anderson high-risk breast cancer program for patients with a family history of breast cancer.
“We were so happy we were able to help Mrs. Clay so quickly,” Dr. Crozier said. “The sooner you find a diagnosis, the sooner you can treat it and the sooner the patient can feel better.”
For more information on Baptist MD Anderson, go to baptistmdanderson.com.