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Dec. 4, 2022

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Vancouver breast cancer patient: Be your own advocate

Heather James trusted gut, best friend when disease returned

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
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Vancouver resident Heather James, right, discovered a lump in her breast in 2020. She received treatment but the cancer returned in the same spot. She has relied on her friend Christina Stewart, also of Vancouver, for support. Stewart accompanied her to appointments to take notes.
Vancouver resident Heather James, right, discovered a lump in her breast in 2020. She received treatment but the cancer returned in the same spot. She has relied on her friend Christina Stewart, also of Vancouver, for support. Stewart accompanied her to appointments to take notes. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Heather James first discovered a lump in her breast in the spring of 2020 while swiping away conditioner that had dripped down from her hair in the shower.

James quickly went to the doctor. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She started chemotherapy and underwent surgery to remove the lump and affected lymph nodes in November 2020. A year later, James celebrated what she thought would be her last chemo infusion followed by her final round of surgery in December 2021.

Like many breast cancer patients, she worried about the cancer coming back. The chances of that happening vary, depending on the type of cancer and the course of treatment, but James’ vigilance was well-founded.

When she felt a lump in her armpit in March, just a few months after completing treatment, she called her doctor right away. Her doctor told her the lump was likely benign but scheduled an ultrasound to be safe. The ultrasound showed nothing of concern and her doctor told James to cancel her March 18 appointment and check back in July.

After forgetting to cancel the appointment, James showed up on March 18 anyway. While talking to her doctor during the appointment, James brushed her chest and felt a lump on her breast in the exact same spot she discovered the lump in the shower two years before.

Her doctor immediately scheduled James for a mammogram and an ultrasound, reassuring James that the lump was likely fat necrosis, which often develops after surgery. She had the mammogram and ultrasound a week later. The radiologist also told her the lump was likely benign and gave her the option of coming back in three months or doing a biopsy right away.

“I looked her straight in the eyes and said, ‘I’ll do the biopsy,’ ” said James, 52.

Before the biopsy results came back, James talked to her surgical oncologist, who also told her the lump was most likely benign.

“All three of my doctors thought it was nothing, but my gut told me it was cancer again,” James said. “I was telling my friends ‘I know it’s cancer. I’m almost 100 percent sure it’s cancer.’ I just had that gut feeling. And that’s where you have to be your own advocate and trust yourself.”

On Friday, April 1, James was visiting her son in college when she got a call from her doctor’s office saying they wanted to see her Monday, followed by a phone call from her doctor informing her that the lump was in fact cancer.

“That was devastating news, because I was done,” James said. “You think you’re done with cancer, but there’s always a chance that it can come back.”

James’ cancer — a kind known as HER2 positive — often recurs. Even though she had been taking the drug tamoxifen to reduce that risk, the same type of cancer returned in the exact same spot.

“She’s a very, very strong person but this is devastating,” said Christina Stewart, James’ best friend.

James had recently returned to work at nLIGHT and was overjoyed to be back. Now she was told she would have to go through more chemo and a mastectomy.

James delayed the surgery so as not to cancel a special trip to Munich with her daughter and best friend. She returned in May and underwent surgery.

Throughout her entire journey with breast cancer, James has relied on her friends to help her through.

“It’s really important to take somebody with you because I would hear half and tune out the other stuff,” James said. “Christina was the note-taker. … I couldn’t have made it without her.”

At 21, James met Christina Stewart in a pool, playing chicken on her boyfriend’s shoulders. They have been best friends ever since.

Since her original diagnosis in 2020, Stewart has been by James’ side, holding her hand every step of the way. Her official role in the process has been the note-taker — keeping track of surgery dates, medications, breast cancer lingo and helping James prepare a list of questions to ask before every doctor’s appointment.

James will continue with treatment for the next five to 10 years. Despite many unknowns in her future, James continues to stay positive. She reminds people to listen to their body and trust their gut.

“I guess the moral of the story is, just be your own advocate,” James said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

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