For most people, 14 years with incurable HER2-positive breast cancer and two re-occurrences would be good reason to wave the white flag. Not so for Sandra Wood, even though she knew life as she knew it was ending. Life without cancer would be no more.
To Sandra, this long, arduous fight with cancer is worth the richness it’s brought to her life. “At one point I didn’t buy any new clothes for four years,” said Sandra. “In my mind I was living with a month-to-month death sentence. Now, I’m different. I’m living, not waiting to die. I like the person I’ve become.”
Sandra doesn’t like to admit she was past due for her mammogram when she discovered a breast lump in 1998. Within a month, it grew fast; doubling in size by the time she had surgery in August 1998 to remove it. “I knew it was cancer, but wanted to wait until after upcoming family events before I had to deal with the looming diagnosis,” said Sandra. “I didn’t want my cancer casting a shadow over those important events.”
After a Marietta breast specialist removed the cancerous tumor and 12 malignant lymph nodes, she was referred to Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers’ Marietta cancer center and Dr. Michael Andrews. A CT scan order by Dr. Andrews showed the cancer had moderately spread in her liver. According to Sandra, she was the first or second patient at Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers (NGOC) to begin receiving the advanced treatment in October 1998. Although the drug worked remarkably well, she never returned to work at Rich’s (now Macy’s) retail floor as a Liz Claiborne specialist.
“Since my diagnosis, I haven’t done anything extraordinary with my time but I did begin to enjoy the little things in life and became more attentive and kind to people,” said Sandra. “I try to find value in the everyday things and appreciate them like never before like my garden. I love watching things grow. And I’m closer to God than I’ve ever been. People always say it takes something bad for that to happen, and for me, it was true.”
The impossible became possible the following May in 1999 when no evidence of cancer was found in Sandra. Six years later, the cancer returned. Fortunately, the cancer was contained in her breast and had not metastasized like before. She successfully completed radiation treatment targeting the cancer found near her chest wall.
August 2011 marked the third time the cancer returned even deeper from the previous surgical site. The cancer had penetrated the chest wall and spread to her lungs where it remains. Dr. Andrews guided Sandra toward a new research drug through a NGOC offered clinical trial, TDM-1, and the WellStar STAT Cancer Clinic, a multi-disciplinary team approach to treating cancer.
“I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Sandra. “I’ve done well on the drug – it’s effective and doesn’t cause bone pain, hair loss or affect your immune system. It only attacks the cancer cells.”
“Very good” is how Sandra scores her longstanding relationship and overall experience with Dr. Andrews and the NGOC team. “I’ve never wanted to go anywhere else,” said Sandra. “Cancer treatment is changing and they change right with it. I know I’m getting the best and most advanced treatment available.”
Sandra’s rapport with Dr. Andrews is good and continues to grow. Over the years, she’s also built such good relationships with the oncology nurses she considers them friends. To Sandra, she’s not just going to another doctor’s appointment; she’s going to pay a visit with her friends.
Today, Sandra is starting a new life. After 41 years of marriage she’s single again, working part time and spending time with her two supportive daughters and her dog, Abbey. “I think about my girls often and hope they don’t get breast cancer like me,” said Sandra. “But I have confidence it won’t be the same for them if they do. New treatments are advancing care all the time.”
In the meantime, she wants to be a good example to her daughters and others. Stories of how Sandra’s encouraged fellow patients in the NGOC infusion room and in a hospital hallway prove you can choose to use your cancer for the greater good.