Beating Cancer Recurrence
When Cancer Comes Back, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Doubles Down To Give Patients Every Chance At Recovery
by Sarah M. Jackson
Eileen was interviewed with her Breast Cancer doctor for the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Summer Magazine which included a photo shoot.
For as long as she can remember, Eileen Kaplan has infused humor into every chapter of her life. It made her fellow Girl Scouts laugh at camp. It caused “little pieces of trouble” througho
ut high school. It put her patients at ease when she worked as an X-ray technologist. It built rapport with her business clients.
So naturally, when Eileen faced breast cancer twice in a matter of months, laughter carried her through treatment and recovery— a journey with an unexpected but fulfilling destination.
While performing a monthly breast self-exam in the shower in June 2005, Eileen felt a lump on her right breast. “I knew it was a tumor,” she recalls. “Since my gynecologist was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I called her office, and they helped me arange an oncology appointment for the next day. Lo and behold, there it was: the uninvited guest. A wild adventure began.”
Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) surgeons performed a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor from Eileen’s breast. She then endured infusions of chemotherapy and rounds of radiation therapy —both designed to kill any lingering cancer cells.
But six months after detecting the first lump, Eileen’s fastidious self-exams picked up another, smaller tumor— this time on her left breast. “What are the odds? One invader in June, and the second in November,” she recounts. With full support from her husband, Arney, family, friends, and her BWH and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute doctors Mehra Golshan, MD, Charles Hergrueter, MD, and Suzanne Berlin, DO, Eileen opted to have both breasts removed at BWH in December 2005—a procedure that would give her a 95 percent cancer survival rate—and began the process of breast reconstruction.
“Recovery was a toughie, and in the end, I decided not to go through with reconstruction surgery,” Eileen says. “But I never asked, ‘Why me?’ I said, ‘Let’s get the cancer out and let me get on with my life.’ ” And that’s exactly what she did.
Enamored of her wonderful humor, Eileen’s care team at BWH encouraged her to write a book. “Then I came up with the title—Laughter is the BREAST Medicine—and started writing,” she says. Recounting her personal breast cancer journey while offering readers hope, laughs, and advice on coping, Eileen’s book has sold thousands of copies since 2009 and launched her new career as a motivational speaker, humorist, and author. “The Brigham gave me a second chance at life, and then inspired the joy of my life: making cancer patients in diagnosis, treatment, or recovery and their families smile,” she says. “My doctors are amazing people, and we’re friends to this day. They’re sensitive and wonderful—and they loved when I made them laugh!”
Understanding Cancer Recurrence
Brigham doctors emphasize that recurrent or repeat cancers like Eileen’s are not the norm, as many patients enjoy a life free from cancer following treatment.
“Recurrence is not a death sentence, nor does it happen often,” says Mehra Golshan, MD, director of BWH Breast Surgical Services. “Many complex factors come into play regarding whether or not a cancer returns.”
At its most basic level, recurrence happens because, in spite of doctors’ best efforts to eliminate the disease through surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, some cancer cells remain in the body. They could be hiding dormant in the same place where cancer first originated (known as local recurrence), or elsewhere in the body (systemic recurrence). These sneaky cells eventually continue to multiply, causing the cancer’s reappearance.
Each year, the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center provides exceptional care to thousands of patients experiencing new, recurrent, or second primary cancers, conducting more than 400,000 appointments and procedures annually. Integrating one of the world’s leading hospitals with an internationally recognized cancer institute gives patients an unrivaled combination of resources to defeat cancer, such as less invasive surgeries, safer forms of radiation therapy, one-of-a-kind technology, and access to the nation’s best cancer doctors and specialists.
No matter the cancer type, patients benefit from BWH support and advocacy groups like the Women’s Lung Cancer Forum, and find hope in the personal stories of other survivors, like Eileen Kaplan, who have beaten cancer more than once. Two-time prostate cancer survivor Bill Tierney, a Korean War veteran and great-grandfather about to celebrate his 60th wedding anniversary, also offers strong words of encouragement.