CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – Just one month before her scheduled 2018 mammogram, WellSpan Summit Health employee Steph Wilkes felt something that didn’t seem right.
“In November of 2018, I detected a small lump in my right breast. I continued to watch it realizing, week by week … it was growing,” said Wilkes.
She made an appointment with her primary care provider who ordered a diagnostic mammogram.
“It had grown a lot in three weeks,” noted Wilkes of the lump.
She also had a biopsy of the lump with a radiologist. When Wilkes received a phone call from Laura Umbrell, cancer navigator for WellSpan Summit Health who moonlights as the area’s “Breast Fairy” to spread awareness about breast cancer, she knew things weren’t good.
“The Breast Fairy doesn’t call you if something’s not wrong.”
Wilkes learned after a second biopsy that she had triple negative breast cancer – an aggressive form of the disease that doesn’t always respond well to typical therapies.
Before her care team helped guide her to a treatment plan, Wilkes went to WellSpan Breast Care where she met with Physician Assistant Meredith Cashdollar for genetic testing.
“I remember meeting her in December when the surgeon asked me to evaluate her pretty quickly. She had just found out the diagnosis, and, she was young,” explained Cashdollar, who performed an evaluation based on her genetics, family history and new diagnosis.
Cashdollar helped explain the genetic evaluation to Wilkes so she could make informed decisions quickly. Wilkes sought treatment in the same health system in which she worked because she knew she could trust the providers and their knowledge.
“It helps to stay local because you have the support of your friends and family. It helps you stay positive – that your friends can be there for you,” she added.
Wilkes had four months of chemotherapy with Dr. Mahinur Khan of WellSpan Medical Oncology and Hematology, which ended April 19, 2019.
“When I met Dr. Khan, I was very comfortable with him immediately. He was very up front, and he made it very clear what I needed to do because I had an aggressive type of cancer.”
Dr. Khan said he could see Wilkes’ attitude shift from fear to optimism as treatment progressed, noting her tumor noticeably shrunk with each treatment.
“She had an amazing outcome,” he said. “She had a complete pathological response to treatment so, we rendered her cancer-free just by chemotherapy.”
“It was 100% effective for me. It took the cancer lump away, which I am grateful for – very grateful for,” said Wilkes.
“Yes, she’s been affected by cancer,” added Dr. Khan, “but, she won. She won the battle.”
Surgery and beyond
About a month after finishing chemotherapy, on May 22, Wilkes had a mastectomy with a breast surgeon and Dr. Wayne Ledinh, surgeon with WellSpan Plastic Surgery & Skin Care, working side-by-side to help alleviate the need for an additional surgery.
“There’s a lot of different ways to do reconstruction. You can have an immediate reconstruction where we try to do surgery at the same time as the breast surgeon and that helps patients tremendously in that it reduces a potential surgery and they walk out of having a mastectomy and they still feel like a woman,” explained Dr. Ledinh.
“It was so much better to wake up and see that you still had the form of the breast,” Wilkes noted.
On Sept. 9, 2019, Wilkes underwent the final chapter in her journey – the remainder of her breast reconstruction with Dr. Ledinh.
“My outlook now is very positive,” said Wilkes. I came through this very well, I was very blessed – I’m not even at a stage. To get through that is a journey emotionally and physically.”