When it came to her health, Donna Hamer, 57, assumed she was covered.
She’d had a mammogram every year since turning 40 and never missed her annual checkup with her gynecologist.
However, her mindset completely changed last year after her doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer from a lump that was discovered not as a result of her exams but by her own self-examination.
The diagnosis and treatment
It was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend 2019 when Hamer went in for her annual mammogram.
While she had never really thought much about her annual visits, on this particular one she went in with a “strange feeling.”
She had just returned from a trip with a few friends and during that trip, one of her friends told the group about her recent breast cancer diagnosis, so the possibility was definitely on her mind.
Following the holiday weekend, Hamer received a call from the office of her doctor, Kathy Saber, requesting a follow-up visit to take a look at an area of concern on her right breast.
It was the first time she had ever been asked to come in for a follow-up as a result of a mammogram.
In the meantime, with her appointment set for Friday, she did something else she’d never really done before.
“I never really did self (breast) exams,” Hamer said. “I thought, ‘Well I go every year for my mammogram, and I go to my gynecologist every year, so I felt like I was pretty well covered.’ But after I got that call back I was in the shower the next day and I thought I wonder what they saw and literally my finger went to a little hard pea-size lump by my nipple and I thought, ‘Well, that must be what they’re talking about.’ ”
At the ultrasound, a few days later, Hamer was surprised when the technician was focusing on an area to the side of her breast when she knew the lump was on her nipple.
“About 10 to 15 minutes into the ultrasound I said to her, ‘Did you find that little lump?’ and she said ‘What little lump?’ ‘Put your finger there,’ ” Hamer said, remembering the day.
After the technician found the lump Hamer was referring to on the ultrasound, she was asked to wait while a radiologist reviewed her results.
“I sat there for about 30 minutes, and (the technician) came in and said, ‘Well the area of concern that the mammogram showed that we looked at on the right side of your breast was benign, but the spot that you showed me the radiologist is recommending a core needle biopsy,’ ” Hamer said.
To set up the biopsy, Hamer decided to go through her own doctor, Saber, who also happen to be a close friend of Hamer.
The biopsy took place the following week just days before Hamer was to leave on a family beach trip.
“So we got to the beach on June 16, my daughter’s birthday, and the very next day, June 17 — Kathy (Saber) sent me a text, ‘Can you call me when you get a chance?,’ ” Hamer said. “She’s the one that told me that it was cancer. It was infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”
After the initial call from Saber, Hamer said everything that followed felt like a whirlwind from appointments with Dr. Ben Moosavi, a plastic reconstruction surgeon at HIMG in Huntington, as well Dr. Sanjeev Sharma, a radiation oncologist, and Dr. Arvinder Bir, an oncologist, in order to figure out her treatment plan.
The first step in the plan was genetic testings to determine whether Hamer carried the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk of a women developing breast or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
For Hamer, genetic testing was especially important.
“I have no medical history because I was adopted, so my medical history starts with me,” she said.
After finding out that she did not carry either of those two genes, Hamer was told she had a choice of two treatment options — a mastectomy, where all the breast tissue is surgically removed from the breast, or a lumpectomy, where only the tumor is removed from the breast, followed by radiation.
Hamer said she opted for the lumpectomy with radiation after receiving advice from Moosavi that both treatment options would be equally effective in her case.
With a plan in place, surgery was scheduled for August 2019.
As part of the lumpectomy, several sentinel lymph nodes were also removed to determine if the cancer had spread.
In Hamer’s case, micrometastasis were found in one of her nodes, which meant another round of tests to see if her doctors would recommend chemotherapy prior to starting radiation.
“That was a very long three to four weeks to wait to determine if I needed chemo ... and when this test came back, I was in the gray area and since it had spread to one of my nodes, Dr. Bir’s recommendation was chemo first and then radiation,” Hamer said.
After seeking a second opinion from the Cleveland Clinic and receiving the same recommendation, Hamer started her chemo in September.
“I had to have four rounds of chemo once every 21 days,” she said “So I got through the chemo — the last treatment was the first week in December — and in January I started my radiation, which I needed 15 rounds of radiation and that was once every day except for the weekend, and that was for 15 days.”
The completion of her chemotherapy and radiation was followed by many more doctor appointments and tests until June 2020, when Bir informed Hamer that she was officially in remission.
Looking back and moving forward
Throughout this yearlong journey, Hamer said she tried her best to stay positive and just focus on the next appointment, test or treatment.
“I almost felt numb, but I remember the day that Kathy (Saber) called me when I was at the beach I cried. We both cried, and that was it,” she said. “Then it was, ‘OK, let’s get this done.’ My mentality was keep taking it one day at a time, move forward, get to the next day.”
Hamer recalls the next time the realization of her cancer diagnosis hit her.
“I just remember the next time that I really cried (again) was when I found out that I had to have chemo, cause I think one of my first questions for Dr. Bir was ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ and he said ‘Yes, you will,’ he said ‘Two weeks from your first treatment, you will start losing your hair.’ ”
Hamer said it was exactly two weeks to the day from her first chemotherapy treatment when her hair started “coming out in clumps.”
“You know as women, losing your hair, that’s hard,” she said.
Her hair loss was also the first indication to the outside world of what she was going through.
After the initial shock, Hamer said she reverted back to her positive attitude.
“That was it; I never looked back,” she said. “I had a wig; I wore hats that had hair attached to it, and I wore hats. I was just constantly looking forward.”
Hamer said she could not have made it through this past year without the support of her family and friends as well as her doctors.
“This journey that I took this past year, I could not have done it without my family,” she said. “My husband was at every appointment, every treatment. He has definitely been my rock. I have an incredible group of friends — thank you seems so small every time I thank them. They did so much for me, it’s just, they were incredible, just really made this journey easier.”
Hamer said her friends were able to help her in ways others couldn’t simply because many of them had also been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“There were several of them — one in particular was just a few months ahead of me — and she would tell me well this is what I’m doing, or this is what I had to do and that was very helpful,” Hamer said. “It’s just incredible how kind they were. There were days I would almost feel guilty or think, ‘Oh I don’t deserve all of this’ ... they were just incredible and kept me very positive.”
Even though her treatment is complete, Hamer says she still has several doctor’s appointments and tests in her future. For the time being, she’ll need a mammogram every six months. In the meantime, Hamer said she will be performing her own exams.
“Self-breast exams are so important,” she said. “Truly, had I not gotten called back for an ultrasound, I would have not done that self-exam, and they wouldn’t have found the cancer, ‘cause I’m the one that found it. The mammogram did not pick up that cancer.”
Hamer said it was definitely a lesson learned on her part.
“Nothing is 100 percent, No test is 100 percent, and that is a lesson learned for me,” she said. “Bottom line, everybody, everybody should be doing self-exams.”
The National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends self-breast exams once a month.
In addition to self-exams, Hamer said another thing she learned during this process is to listen to her body and not be afraid to speak up.
Prior to her diagnosis, Hamer said she had an itch on her right breast that wasn’t due to dry skin and got to a point where it was so bad that it would wake her in the night.
“It was a nerve tingling itch, and I always meant to mention that (to my doctor), but I thought ‘Oh that’s silly,’ ” she said.
She later revealed that detail to Saber, her close friend and doctor who lovingly reprimanded Hamer in a way that only a friend and doctor can do.
Since her lumpectomy, Hamer said her itch has completely disappeared.
“Always listen; speak up. It’s never silly — that’s what your doctor is there for,” she said.