Walking the journey together

Mother and daughter diagnosed with breast cancer months apart find strength, support and the hope of a bright future

A daughter’s story

Rebecca Engelbrecht awoke from a night’s sleep with a sharp pain in her breast. It was the first time she’d ever experienced the sensation, and it caught her attention. The next morning, she did a breast self-exam for the first time in her life. She was only 41 and started mammograms at 40 as recommended. She didn’t expect to find anything, but upon her inspection, she felt a small, hard lump. Hoping it was a cyst, she decided to wait a bit before calling her doctor.

After a few days, she made an appointment. Next came a whirlwind of tests—mammograms, an ultrasound, bloodwork—and ultimately, a biopsy. Then the most difficult task—waiting. Because there are many different types of breast cancer, detailed tests typically take a few days for the results to be processed.

At her follow-up appointment, HFM Surgeon Dr. Matthew McFarlane delivered the news Rebecca feared. She had cancer.

But although her diagnosis shook her to her core, Rebecca kept her composure and placed her trust in Dr. McFarlane’s expertise. Feeling reassured and genuinely cared for, and with the support of family and friends, she committed to taking cancer head-on.

After another few days—and tests—Rebecca got her first piece of good news. She didn’t need chemo before surgery because her cancer wasn’t an aggressive type. After that, Rebecca knew that no matter what, she was going to be ok.

Within eight days of her initial diagnosis, Rebecca was cleared to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with no chemo follow-up. Other options such as a lumpectomy and reconstruction surgery were available, but after lots of research, reflection and conversations with Oncologist Dr. Mitch Winkler and Radiation Oncologist Dr. Kiernan Minihan of the HFM Cancer Center, Rebecca chose bilateral mastectomy.

After her surgery, Rebecca received the best news yet—her cancer was Stage 1. She completed follow-up physical therapy through HFM’s STAR (Survivorship Training and Rehab) program and knew brighter days were ahead.

A mother’s story

After her daughter Rebecca’s breast cancer diagnosis, Mary Ann LaViolette felt like skipping her annual mammogram. But she knew better and kept her appointment.

As her appointment was wrapping up, the technologist asked Mary Ann if she could come back for an ultrasound that afternoon. However uneasy, she complied and returned the same day for an ultrasound.

After the ultrasound, her radiologist let her know that the results could potentially be cancer. Mary Ann was in shock.

A biopsy was immediately scheduled, and it was Dr. McFarlane—who delivered the initial diagnosis to Rebecca just months prior—who called Mary Ann with her results. He first checked to make sure Mary Ann was with someone and not driving. Then he delivered the difficult news mirror image to what he told Mary Ann’s daughter—she too, had cancer.

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Everyone was so friendly at Holy Family Memorial. I’ve experienced hospitals in big cities with family members, so I can absolutely recommend the care at HFM.

Dr. McFarlane went on to comfort Mary Ann and explain everything, including surgery options, so she could fully understand her best plan to beat her cancer. He then asked that she meet with Oncologist Dr. Lynn Baatz of the HFM Cancer Center. After meeting with Dr. Baatz and exploring all of her options, Mary Ann—who describes herself as stubborn—made her final decision to follow suit with her daughter and undergo a bilateral mastectomy with the hope of not needing follow-up chemo.

Mary Ann doesn’t remember her surgery, but she does remember her husband, along with her daughter, Rebecca, being there for her before and after—that and excellent nurses checking on her frequently.

“Dr. McFarlane talked to me the next day in the hospital. He took time to listen and explain everything. I never felt rushed. He really cares and has an excellent bedside manner,” recalled Mary Ann. “Everyone was so friendly at Holy Family Memorial. I’ve experienced hospitals in big cities with family members, so I can absolutely recommend the care
at HFM.”

Now cancer-free, Mary Ann—like Rebecca—is looking forward to what the future holds.

It’s all about attitude

It turns out that Rebecca and Mary Ann had exactly the same breast cancer, and both Stage 1. Rebecca went through genetic counseling, and surprisingly, learned their type of cancer isn’t genetic. But although their cancer wasn’t genetic, perhaps their positive attitudes are.

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Why should I make myself feel miserable when I want to go on with life—I’d rather be positive and happy!

Rebecca went through a difficult time in her life many years ago dealing with depression. But with those days behind her, and with three wonderful children, her will to live is unbreakable. And through the support of her children, husband, family and friends, she found the strength and positive attitude to beat her cancer. Her journey—although not something she chose—gave her emotional gifts she wouldn’t have otherwise received.

Mary Ann also dealt with adversity early on in her life. Her first husband died when he was only 28 years old. She quickly learned you have to keep a positive attitude no matter where you are on the journey of life. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she didn’t give in to negativity or self-pity. Her philosophy is: “Why should I make myself feel miserable when I want to go on with life—I’d rather be positive and happy!”

She’s thankful, too, for her husband and daughter’s positive attitudes and all the support they gave her during her battle with cancer.

Advice to heed—straight from two strong survivors

Rebecca and Mary Ann share their story because they want women to know that finding breast cancer early can make a huge difference—often the difference between life and death.

The five-year relative survival rate for Stage 1 breast cancer is 100%. So be sure to get a yearly mammogram if you’re 40 or older. And don’t forget—do your monthly breast self-exams. Don’t wait if you suspect something or feel anything unusual.

And if you do receive a cancer diagnosis, know that it’s very treatable.

Your cancer care team at HFM

HFM’s Cancer Care Center is here to fight cancer head-on with you, offering experience, expertise and compassionate care. From our surgeons, radiologists and oncologists, to our specialized radiation oncologists and pain specialists, we provide leading-edge cancer care, minutes from home.

In October, HFM’s Women’s Imaging Department will offer Saturday, screening mammogram appointments from 7-11:30 a.m. Call 320-6777 to schedule. If you’re uninsured, find out if you qualify for a free screening mammogram at HFM—a safe, secure and confidential environment, (920) 320-2220.