Scoring Against Breast Cancer

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Cincinnati Health & Life Magazine.

From down on the field at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals players look bigger. That’s one thing Carol Downing remembers thinking as she took part in a TriHealth breastcancer awareness event last October. “All my life, I’ve been a Bengals fan,” she says. “My parents have had season tickets since 1968, when the Bengals started. We would go to training camp and everything. I did it as a child, and I did it with my own son.”

Not only did Carol spend time on the field watching warm-ups and the first part of the game against Cleveland, but she carried out the game ball. What did that mean to her? “It symbolized I was almost done. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel for treatment, which I didn’t finish until December 27, 2016. It was a challenging year.”

Carol’s treatment journey started in late 2015 when, one morning after her shower, she performed a breast self-exam. To her surprise, she felt a lump. She called her primary care provider who saw her that same day. He thought the lump was suspicious, and arranged for her to have a mammogram the next day. Soon, she had an answer: It was cancer.

Carol and her husband, Jerry, met with Ching Ho, M.D., a surgeon with TriHealth Cancer Institute. “At that point,” says Carol, “we didn’t yet know what type of breast cancer it was. Dr. Ho went over the preliminary information she had and the likely treatment. She spent over an hour with us, and was very gracious. She answered all our questions, no matter how many times she’s heard those questions before.”

When all test results were in, Jason Jones, M.D., a medical oncologist with TriHealth Cancer Institute, explained to Carol and her husband her cancer diagnosis: human-epidermal-growth-factor receptor 2 positive (HER2+), progesterone-receptor positive (PR+) and estrogen-receptor positive (ER+). Then he went through the treatment plan. “Dr. Jones is very approachable,” says Carol. “He understands where you’re at and explains things so you understand.”

In January, Carol would begin a chemotherapy regimen known as TCHP, which she would have every three weeks. Carol’s breast cancer was an aggressive form of the disease in which cancerous cells grow and divide faster. This meant additional treatment with a drug called Herceptin. In May, she would have a lumpectomy. In July she would begin 30 rounds of radiation.

Carol Downing

Carol Downing (left), seen here with her nurse navigator, Mary Alliston, R.N., (center) and her surgeon, Ching Ho, M.D., (right), carried out the game ball for the Bengals during a TriHealth breast-cancer awareness event last October.

Treatment, explained

“I’m a healthcare social worker,” says Carol, “so I understood the treatment plan better at first than Jerry, who works in information technology. He likes to fix things right away, and he couldn’t understand why they wanted to leave the cancer in my breast until May. Dr. Jones understood that concern and explained why we weren’t creating additional risk by leaving the cancer in place for four months.”

During the chemo, which was given to help shrink the tumor before surgery, Carol lost her hair. Mid-March through May, the chemo became so difficult to tolerate that she had to take a leave of absence from work. “It was that rough,” she says. “But through it all, if I had a question or concern, Dr. Jones and his staff would always get right back to me. Dr. Jones never seemed in a rush—he was always in the moment. That was just amazing to me.”

“I can’t say enough good things about everyone at TriHealth,” she continues, reflecting on how she made it through such a challenging time. “The nurses at the treatment center kept me going. I actually looked forward to seeing them.”

Another example of the personal care she received, she says, was after her lumpectomy as she was beginning radiation treatment. “When you’re transitioning to another provider,” she explains, “you meet with both doctors at the same time.” For Carol, one such visit was with her surgeon, Dr. Ho, and her radiation oncologist, Anton Khouri, M.D. “They both said, ‘There are no bad questions—ask away.’ That felt reassuring.”

At follow-up meetings, Dr. Khouri was always ready to talk; always making sure Carol was doing OK. “I never had the feeling he was already thinking about his next patient,” she says. All through her treatment, Carol says she never felt like a patient. “I felt like they were all walking the path with me. I’d like them to know that they’re really making a difference.”

Now that treatment is behind her, that afternoon on the field at Paul Brown Stadium has special meaning for Carol. “I was there with my husband, son, sister and mother,” she says. “And on the field with me were many of my doctors and nurses from TriHealth. Everyone who helped me through this experience was around me. It was a moment to celebrate.” To cap off the day, the Bengals beat the Browns 31 to 17. Afterward, Carol went out to dinner with her family. “We just enjoyed each other’s company. It makes you realize that all the stuff we worry about is really minutiae. What’s important is the people in your life.”

Tags: Cancer, Womens Health

Last Updated: April 24, 2017