The pandemic disrupted so many parts of life that we had always taken for granted. Restaurant meals, movies in a theater, gatherings with friends and family – and, for many of us, routine medical screenings.
Even so, during the height of the pandemic in November 2020, Vicky Cook, 56, was able to keep her appointment for an annual, routine screening mammogram. “I’m a huge proponent of getting your regular screenings and exams,” Vicky says. “St. Jude was able to get people in for these appointments during COVID, and I was lucky for that.”
As it turned out, Vicky’s mammogram showed a mass. Within days, she learned she had triple-negative breast cancer, which is a type that tends to grow and spread quickly. This wasn’t good news, and Vicky faced a tough road ahead, but she was ready to fight.
Care, with hope
As unwelcome as the diagnosis was, Vicky says her care team members were a source of encouragement and hope from the very start.
“Ten years ago, most people with triple-negative breast cancer did not survive,” Vicky says. “But in recent years, thanks to research and new treatment protocols, this cancer is treatable and curable. Hearing those words from my doctors after my diagnosis sparked such hope. I thought to myself, ‘I can fight this.’”
Leading Vicky’s care were oncologist Giribala R. Patel, M.D., and breast surgeon Lori Uyeno, M.D.; they both practice with St. Jude Heritage Medical Group. She credits these doctors for working together – along with their teams – to act quickly and competently on her behalf. They confirmed the cancer, developed a plan and started treatment within just three weeks after her initial diagnosis.
“Dr. Patel has been amazing in her care for me; you can tell she really cares about the person she is treating. And Dr. Uyeno is a fantastic surgeon. The care they provided, and their willingness to listen, allowed me to ask questions and truly be engaged in the conversation about my treatment.”
It takes a team
Vicky’s treatment plan started with six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in May 2021. Next, she began radiation therapy, followed by a year of infused immunotherapy. (Immunotherapy “trains” the body’s immune system to find and destroy cancerous cells. It has been shown to help some people with cancer live longer.)
Through it all, Vicky says she found the coordination among all her doctors and their teams “phenomenal.”
“You don’t really see that in many medical settings,” she says. “It gives a patient a lot of comfort to see everyone on the same page, working together, giving you correct information, answering questions and helping you navigate the journey. St. Jude does a great job at coordinated care.”
Paying it forward
In May 2023 Vicky will be two years cancer-free. She says she’s gotten her energy levels back and can do most of the normal day-to-day activities that she enjoyed before her diagnosis.
She likes to look at the positive: “I lost weight during treatment, and I’ve kept it off,” she says. “I eat healthier. I am healthier. I’m seeing life through a different lens, not working such long hours, taking time to care for myself. I give myself grace.”
She also decided to use her experience to help other people. Vicky has been working with the American Cancer Society to raise money for breast cancer through the Making Strides campaign. In May 2022, Vicky was a runway model for the St. Jude Memorial Foundation A Walk Among the Stars Fashion Show to raise money for St. Jude’s cancer trials and genetic testing programs. Also, last fall, she was selected to participate in the Crucial Catch night for the Los Angeles Chargers – an awareness campaign sponsored by the National Football League to fight cancer through early detection and risk reduction.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” Vicky says. “I met so many powerful, strong women…it was an incredible night of sisterhood.” She plans to continue her advocacy work, with a focus on making sure everyone, regardless of social status, income level or insurance has access to life-saving cancer screenings, and to help others who are diagnosed with cancer and afraid of what lies ahead.
“It’s important that those on any cancer journey know this: No one fights alone.”
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