Young Breast Cancer Survivor Takes Steps to Mitigate Future Cancer and Lymphedema Risk

Michelle and her parents

Breast cancer wasn’t on Michelle McCarthy's radar — for good reason. The now 36-year-old from Alexandria, Ohio, had no family history of breast cancer. Screening mammograms were years off: “I was just so young. I didn’t even do self-breast exams,” she said.

But then Michelle felt a lump.

Her doctor brushed it off as a possible fatty tumor — nothing to be concerned about — so Michelle went on with her busy life as a mom of three young girls. About a year later, she noticed the lump again in the shower. This time, her gut told her she shouldn’t ignore it.

A second opinion led to a stage-2 breast cancer diagnosis and her life quickly changed.

“In every aspect of my life, I try to focus on the positive. I’m glad I followed my gut because my cancer was caught earlier as a result. That is something to be thankful for,” says Michelle. “I prayed a lot about where I should be treated, and when my friend, Kathleen, told me of her experience at The James, I chose to pursue my care there.”

Genetic testing revealed that Michelle carried the BRCA2 mutation, putting her at a higher risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. So in addition to a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy she chose to have a full hysterectomy (removal of ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes) to eliminate her risk of gynecologic cancer.

“I wanted to do everything I could to eliminate my risk for recurrence and other cancers – and then move on with my life,” she recalls. “My life was already flipped upside down. I didn’t want to prolong that for my kids and my husband.”

The day after Michelle was discharged from the hospital, she went trick-or-treating with her kids. When she started losing her hair, she let her girls cut her hair into a bob then her husband shaved her head. They all pretended they were warriors afterward, sporting matching bandanas and game-day eye black.

“Cancer took me down an unexpected path, but I refuse to let it define me or my family. I believe in the power of positive thinking to help you heal and cope with anything life throws you,” she adds.

An Increased Risk for Lymphedema

In November 2015, Michelle’s left hand began to feel tight. She assumed she had overdone it so she took it easy for a few days. But the tightness persisted. When her hand began visibly swelling, she consulted with a physical therapist and talked to Roman Skoracki, MD, about whether lymphedema-relieving surgery was a good option for her. (Skoracki had also performed her reconstructive surgery.)

Surgeons removed 30 lymph nodes to check for signs of cancer spreading beyond the breast. Thankfully, only two were positive but removing so many lymph nodes put her in a high-risk category for lymphedema.

An estimated 3 to 5 million Americans will experience chronic lymphedema, uncomfortable and oftentimes mobility limiting swelling of the arms, legs, hands or feet that occurs when a large number of lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer treatment.

Skoracki is among a handful of surgeons in the United States trained to perform two different lymphedema-relieving microsurgery techniques: lymphovenous bypass and vascularized lymph node transfer. Both procedures involve re-routing lymphatic channels to allow for proper draining of fluids, eliminating the “traffic jam” that results in swelling.

“What I love about Dr. Skoracki is that he is always smiling and his happiness is infectious. His bedside manner immediately put my entire family at ease. He took the time to answer all our questions and explain why he thought this (lymphedema-relieving) surgery could help me,” says Michelle. “I am a mom of three young girls. Cancer is super scary but the entire team made me feel like they had my best interests at heart.”

Michelle had the surgery in July 2016. She’s focused on living her life to the fullest every day and remaining solidly grounded in positive thinking.

“I’m not trying to sugarcoat it – going through cancer is hell but if you have to do it, The James is the best place to be. I had an amazing team from my first surgery with Dr. Doreen Agnese, to chemotherapy with Dr. Bhuvana Ramaswamy, Dr. Floor Backes and all my reconstruction/lymphedema surgery with Dr. Roman Skoracki. The nurses were my cheerleaders as well as my caregivers, especially Joanie Dooley in chemotherapy.”

“I am eternally grateful for the love and support I received from my entire family, friends, doctors, and the staff at the James," she adds.

Visit our breast cancer treatment team page to learn more about the multidisciplinary breast cancer team or call 1-800-293-5066.