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Moments: Nurse becomes patient after breast cancer diagnosis

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Roughly 170,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States each year.
After her breast cancer diagnosis, and her mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis, Margo Marko chose to have genetic tests conducted to see if her family was at heightened genetic risk for cancer. Marko wanted to protect her two daughters.

Margo Marko remembers the phone call with perfect clarity.

An experienced nurse, Marko was well aware of the risks cancer or other diseases could pose. Each year, she scheduled a routine mammogram during her birthday month. And each year, the test results came back negative.

But in 2012, her radiologist called after her annual exam to request an additional ultrasound. Her initial test results, the doctor said, weren’t clear. Marko knew then that this would be no ordinary return visit.

She was right. The ultrasound uncovered a tumor in her left breast, and specialists told Marko there was a “99 percent” chance it was cancer. A biopsy confirmed the cancer; Marko was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma, one of the most common forms of breast cancer.

“We weren’t promised a problem-free life,” Marko said. “I just bent my head, and I said: ‘God, let me be content, no matter the outcome.”

Careful care coordination
Marko, a former employee at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, opted to undergo a partial mastectomy at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in June 2012, followed by a month of high-dose radiation. She also received coordinated care through the Breast Center at University of Minnesota Medical Center, which is part of University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care.

The Breast Center at University of Minnesota Medical Center is recognized by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers and identified by the American College of Radiology as a Diagnostic Imaging Center of Excellence. It offers patients a comprehensive approach to breast cancer care. Nurse coordinators serve as a communications link for each patient and guide them through the cancer treatment process.

For Marko, who knew many of the physicians and providers within University of Minnesota Cancer Care, the choice was obvious.

Find out more about our breast cancer treatment options through University of Minnesota Cancer Care.

“Everyone from the clinic to radiology always made eye contact, greeted me, asked if I had questions, asked if I was comfortable, always accommodated my husband, respected my privacy, and held my hand when they saw I needed it,” Marko said. “The entire team brings so much respect and dignity to the care they deliver.”

Specialists discovered that Marko’s cancer was hormone reactive, which means the cancer cells could grow with the help of the natural estrogen and progesterone produced by her body. Despite the complication, the mastectomy and radiation effectively eliminated Marko’s cancer.

With the removal of the cancer, Marko’s thoughts turned to reconstruction. Rather than receiving an implant, she chose to have a newer method of reconstruction, using fat cells taken from other parts of her body. Former M Health Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon Bruce Cunningham, MD, MS, performed the procedure.

Faith, family and friends
Marko had the second of two reconstructive surgeries in March 2014, but she still sees her oncologist, Douglas Yee, MD, every six months for regular check-in visits. Marko’s mother was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013. In the wake of that diagnosis, Marko decided to undergo testing to see if her family had an increased genetic risk for cancer.

Fortunately, the test results were negative—which meant that Marko’s two daughters do not have a heightened genetic risk for cancer.

While informing her family and friends that she had cancer proved to be the most emotionally challenging part of Marko’s journey, the support she received from those near her became a wellspring of strength and reassurance. Marko remembers the phone calls, flowers and cards—and a book filled with words of encouragement and hope from loved ones.

“Those are the things that get your through it all, and those are the things that I will turn around and do for someone else,” Marko said.

Her faith also played an integral role in her healing.

“From the moment I received the call from the radiologist [asking] for a return visit and ultrasound to this moment, I have asked God daily for the strength to be content in the present. I chose not to worry about what tomorrow might bring.”

Update 12/9/2016: Margo is now approaching the five-year anniversary of her battle with breast cancer, and is still healthy and feeling wonderful. She remains on an aromatase inhibitor to reduce the ongoing risk of a repeat cancer.