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Breast cancer no longer a death sentence

Former health director Vernice Anthony said women should know treatment advances have made breast cancer manageable

Patricia Anstett
Special to The Detroit News
Vernice Anthony, 71, has been treated for breast cancer three times.

Please don’t tell breast cancer survivor Vernice Anthony it’s too bad her cancer returned.

And for sure, don’t tell her about someone you know who died of it.

Anthony, a giant of Detroit’s healthcare industry and former director of the Michigan’s public health department, has Stage 4, or metastatic, breast cancer, the final of four stages of the disease.

Diagnosed originally with breast cancer in 2004, Anthony of West Bloomfield had two recurrences, in 2011 and 2014.

She agreed to tell her story publicly for the first time so other women, particularly African-American women like her, understand that treatment advances have made metastatic breast cancer a chronic disease to be managed, like diabetes and high blood pressure, not a death sentence, as far too many women, particularly African-Americans, still think.

“It used to mean that when you saw the word metastasis that you were on your way out,’’ said Anthony, 71. “Today, you have options. The word now defines the location of your cancer, not your health status.”

Anthony was named an honorary chair of the 15th annual conference of the Sisters Network, a Houston-based, nonprofit organization of African-American breast cancer survivors that held its meeting last week in Detroit. The conference focused on breast cancer treatment, surgery and reconstruction advances, as well as survivor stories like hers.

“The sister of one of my good friends was so anxious about getting a formal diagnosis of cancer that she would not go in for treatment,” Anthony said. “She thought as long as I don’t get it, and they don’t tell you that, then you don’t have to deal with it. So she waited until the tumor got very big.

“That feeling is still very alive, especially among lower-income communities. They want to pray it away. That’s one of the things this woman did. She said, ‘I’m share this with my prayer circle because I know prayer works.’ ”

“If you believe that strongly in God, you know He’s working with the doctor’s hands and all knowledge and wisdom delivered to that health professional is good to help your body heal. You have to talk about it in that type of a context. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to church and I’m going to be healed.’ These feelings are compatible with health. That’s really important to other black women, the whole respect for God, religion and prayer is part of the whole dialogue.”

Black women die more often

An estimated 27,060 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in 2013 among African-American women, according to the American Cancer Society. For reasons not well understood, however, it occurs earlier in African-American women and they die more often of it. Nearly a third of American women die of breast cancer, compared to just under one in four white women.

The cancer society says the median diagnosis of breast cancer is 57 years among African-American women, compared to 62 for white women. Breast cancer in African-Americans also is associated with factors such as triple-negative disease, when breast cancer lacks receptors for two hormones and a protein that conventional chemotherapy targets. As a result, 78 percent of African-American women are alive five years after a breast cancer diagnosis, compared to 90 percent among white women. Only half of breast cancer is diagnosed at a local and most treatable stage, compared to 61 percent of white women.

Studies are looking at reproductive patterns, early age of pregnancy and menstrual cycle, along with access to health care, physical inactivity and poorer nutrition, as possible factors.

The statistics convinced Anthony to share her story more broadly.

“There needs to be more examples of African-American women who have dealt with this, so others can see the whole strategy of living with cancer as opposed to dying of cancer.”

Three recurrences

Over the years, Anthony has held leadership positions in the Wayne County and Michigan departments of public health, as well as being senior vice president at St. John Providence Health System, and president and CEO of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council. She also served on many corporate and public boards, including the Wayne State University Board of Governors.

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 when she was 60. It was picked up on her regular mammogram.

“I never missed a mammogram,” she said.

The needle biopsy used to indicate it was cancer went too far and caused one of her lungs to collapse, landing her in the hospital. She had chemotherapy and radiation and took the drug Tamoxifen for five years, as advised at the time. It’s a drug used to mitigate a recurrence in women with estrogen-positive tumors like hers.

Anthony, who had implant-based breast reconstruction, had more than her share of problems. She developed an infection and had to be hospitalized so her plastic surgeon could remove the implant.

“It seemed like if there was a complication, I got it,” she said.

Once healed, she went to a different plastic surgeon who performed an autologous breast reconstruction that used a flap of skin from her back. Known as a latissimus flap or LAT flap, it takes skin, fat and muscle below the shoulder blade and tunnels it through the armpit to the chest to make a breast. She chose that option because prior radiation made it difficult for her to have implant reconstruction again.

In 2011, Anthony noticed small bumps in the middle of her chest. A biopsy confirmed her cancer had recurred.

“It was like, ‘heavens, leave me alone.’ ”

She had more chemotherapy and radiation.

Then in 2014-15, Anthony found three more bumps in her skin between her breasts. She had more chemotherapy and a different type of radiation, causing her the worst pain yet. She healed slowly and decided to retire.

Today, she is enjoying her life fully. No regrets.

“It’s all gone,” Anthony says. “I’m very happy it’s all gone. Girl, what I had to go through. Three recurrences and dealing with the whole psychology of when is this going to be over wasn’t easy. I know now it didn’t come back; it never went away. I say it’s dormant for now because they can’t guarantee it won’t come back.”

The lessons she said she’s learned from breast cancer treatment include:

■Follow your doctor’s advice to stay on Tamoxifen, or one like it, letrazol, to avoid a recurrence. Many doctors now recommend women take the drugs for 10 years.

■Never give up. “Every day, there are new treatments, new information. They are always working on something else.”

■Ask your doctor about side effects of your treatment. “They don’t want to tell you about the worst side effects. And ask about the costs and what you have to pay.”

■Use friends to convey information about cancer, to avoid those who somehow have to tell you about someone’s cancer death.

“All those conversations take energy you didn’t feel like giving out. They think you’re dying, so you have to spend your time making them feel better.

“One of the things I did was ask one of my best girlfriends, Marilyn French Hubbard, to talk to my other friends. If they were shocked and said, ‘Oh no,’ she’d say, ‘Vern doesn’t want to hear that.’ She was a big help. What people need to say is something simple, like ‘Boy, that must be rough. What can I do for you?’ Or, ‘That must be difficult for you. Is there anything I can do? Just know I’ll be thinking about you. I’ll do anything you need that you won’t do. I’ll call you from time to time to see how things are going.’ Send a card. Send flowers. But don’t tell me about people you know who had cancer.”

Anthony says she hopes her story helps others face cancer, particularly when discovered late.

“I’ve been living with cancer now for over a decade,” she says. “It’s always somewhere in the back of your mind.’’

Anthony chooses to spend time with her family, travel, play golf and enjoy her garden. When her breast cancer came back the second time, she bought herself a car. When it occurred for a third time, she retired and started to spruce up her condo.

“I don’t think I’d make decisions like that if I thought I was looking at death in the short term,” Anthony said. “It’s not all bad. It’s very liberating to approach life like that.”

Patricia Anstett is the author of “Breast Cancer Surgery and Reconstruction: What’s Right for You,” published in June by Rowman and Littlefield, with photography by Kathleen Galligan. For information, go to