Marcia Wentworth is nothing else if not diligent.
In 1983, the then 28-year-old Minnesota resident was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. At the time she had five kids, all 7 years old or younger.
The news was crushing. Wentworth had a new family, a young husband and what she thought would be her whole life ahead of her. Wentworth’s initial outlook was grim: She immediately consulted some cruelly outdated medical textbooks and read that patients diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma had an estimated three to five years to live.
Thankfully, she was wrong. Wentworth sought treatment at University of Minnesota Medical Center, where her physician, Radiation Oncologist Chung Lee, MD, told her that the cancer in her neck and chest was actually one of the most treatable cancers out there. And she was right: six weeks of chest and neck radiation later — plus four weeks of radiation to the abdominal area as a precautionary measure—and Wentworth was told her cancer was in remission.
Five years later, doctors declared her cured. What turned out to be a life-threatening scare for a young mother of five was gone. And more than three decades went by without a hitch—until late 2013, when a routine screening found something in Wentworth’s breast. Her care team delivered the news all cancer survivors dread: The radiation that cured her cancer over 30 years ago had inadvertently caused a new cancer to develop—and it would likely spread.
But this is where Wentworth’s diligence paid off: For years she had scheduled annual checkups with Hematologist/Oncologist Anne Blaes, MD, the director of the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Survivor Program, while also seeing her primary care physician. Because of this, doctors caught Wentworth’s secondary cancer very early. She opted to have a double mastectomy surgery, which eradicated the breast cancer without the need for any follow-up treatment.
“I was out the next day and didn’t even need a Tylenol,” said Wentworth, who attributed her rapid turnaround in part to the high-quality care she received.
Wentworth’s story is incredible, and she has high praise for the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care physicians who treated her. Unfortunately, her story is all too common, Blaes said.
“Women who underwent radiation at a young age—especially radiation applied to their chest—may face a significant secondary cancer risk by the time they are in their 50s,” Blaes said.
Because of this, Blaes and her colleagues at the Cancer Survivor Program recommend that women like Wentworth schedule routine breast MRIs and mammograms, starting eight years after the end of treatment or when they turn 25, whichever comes later. All cancer survivors must also communicate often with their primary care physicians and oncologists so secondary cancers developing later in life can be caught as early as possible.
The University of Minnesota Health Cancer Survivor Program is available to all cancer survivors, regardless of age, diagnosis or where they received cancer treatment. Adult cancer survivors are eligible three or more years after completion of their cancer therapy, and childhood survivors are eligible five years after diagnosis or three years after blood and marrow transplant.
Survivors can also request a “patient summary” after their treatment so they can document all of the chemotherapy, drugs and radiation they received as part of their cancer regimen. Our program will also provide them with a treatment plan that outlines what they need to do to stay well.
“The treatment plan is sort of your prescription on how to live—and stay—well,” Blaes said.
Risk for secondary cancers or complications from cancer treatment depends on the age the patient was treated for the initial cancer, as well as the types of treatments they received. Research from the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Survivor Program has also led to a better understanding of the complications from certain treatments. This, in turn, has allowed care providers to improve their treatment techniques. For example, doctors now avoid chest radiation for Hodgkin lymphoma, if possible, to minimize the potential risk of long-term complications from it.
Wentworth, 62, is currently happy and healthy. She is still diligent in her checkups; she sees her local primary doctor regularly and meets annually with Blaes. Even after surviving two bouts with cancer, Wentworth knows another diagnosis is still possible, but she’s realistic about it and refuses to let fear control her.
“You have to be smart about it, be aware of it and take the necessary precautions, but you don’t have to wallow in self-pity,” Wentworth said. “If it happens again, you deal with it.”