When Margarita Figueroa went in for her first mammogram in 2017, she was younger than the recommended age for breast cancer screening. And she had no family history of cancer. But her gynecologist, a breast cancer survivor, urged her to get tested early.
When the results required that she have a second mammogram and a biopsy, Margarita still didn't quite believe it.
"I was just dismissing it. 'Oh, it's a fluke. I don't have any family history. This is not happening.' And I was like that for a little bit, and then I had to go into overdrive mode to figure out how to deal with it."
Seeking a Second Opinion
After a second mammogram and a biopsy, Margarita's provider at the time scheduled a surgery within the next two weeks.
"It seemed very rushed to me," she recalls. "I did some reading and research and it looked like I needed to have other tests."
When her providers weren't receptive to her concerns, she reached out to UVA Health for a second opinion. From the moment Margarita and her husband met with breast surgeon Anneke Schroen, MD, they noticed a change in their experience.
"We didn't feel pushed around. She told me that she wanted to cross all the T's and dot all the I's. She laid out what we needed to do to figure out exactly where the cancer was."
Coming Up With a Better Plan
Dr. Schroen reviewed Margarita's previous tests. "Her initial diagnoses showed something that we consider a risk marker for breast cancer and not an actual breast cancer diagnosis." Plus, Dr. Schroen was concerned that Margarita had received conflicting opinions on previous biopsies.
As with any second opinion at the UVA Breast Care Center, Dr. Schroen presented Margarita's case to a team of experts. "All imaging gets reviewed again by our radiologists who specialize in breast imaging. Pathology gets reviewed again. Then we meet together as a team of multiple specialists to review these tests and to discuss the plan."
Instead of having a surgery that could only help diagnose breast cancer, Dr. Schroen's team was able to fully diagnose the cancer so the surgery could be focused on treatment. With the help of plastic reconstructive surgeon Chris Campbell, MD, Margarita would have a full mastectomy and breast reconstruction on the same day.
BREAST CANCER SCREENING
If you're a woman, you have a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer.
Returning Home to New Challenges
Margarita's mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery had been a success, but a long road was still ahead. Because of having an autologous reconstruction (where they removed fat from her own body), she had drains attached to her body. She wasn't able to drive, get around easily, or hug her children.
Margarita met with breast oncologist Patrick Dillon, MD, to discuss treatment. Although she was relieved not to have to undergo chemotherapy, she found radiation therapy to have its own challenges; mentally and emotionally.
"Physically, the lowest point was when I came back from surgery and I couldn't do very much. But mentally, the lowest point was in the middle of radiation," she remembers.
During radiation therapy, Margarita was sleeping 12 hours a day without an appetite. Meanwhile, a host of life, work, and family issues continued to pile up. While her husband was traveling, Margarita was in a car accident. That same week, she received news of her mother being hospitalized in Mexico.
Her radiation oncologist Einsley Janowski, MD, noticed a new sadness in Margarita that was compounded by the ongoing stresses of life. After they talked about the causes of her stress, Dr. Janowski referred Margarita to psychologist Kim Penberthy, PhD.
With Dr. Penberthy, Margarita was able to learn the techniques that could help manage her thoughts and feelings, and re-center how she perceives her challenges.
Margarita had always been an active volunteer in her community, which is something that had paused with her cancer diagnosis.
Later in her journey, Dr. Dillon suggested she consider the Cancer Center Peer Support Program at UVA. Remembering the questions and struggles she faced after her initial diagnosis, Margarita saw the peer support program as an opportunity to help others.
As a peer partner, not only has she been able to offer guidance and an open ear to cancer patients, she has gained a community of others with similar experiences. A guiding message she has shared is the importance of self-advocacy and self-care.
"There are too many appointments one has to go to, and not enough time. Really, one has to stop that and take care of yourself. That's one of the things that I had to learn. I cannot do all these things. I had to take care of myself first."
Watch Margarita's story.