Experiencing Breast Cancer: From Caregiver to Survivor

April 29, 2013

Nicole McPheeters understands, both professionally and personally, the importance of having a mammogram. As the Breast Center coordinator at Providence Medford Medical Center, Nicole has been a mammography technologist for more than 13 years. But in 2012, she suddenly found herself on the receiving side of health care and is now a breast cancer survivor.  

"I have no family history of breast cancer but I decided to take advantage of the employee mammography screening offered at Providence Medford Medical Center and get my baseline mammogram at age 35," Nicole said.

The American Center Society and other health organizations recommend having a baseline at age 40, but if Nicole had waited five years she may not have survived.

"I had my screening and was called back for magnification views," Nicole explained. "I thought I would wait for follow up in 11 months because I was planning to be pregnant. But then I got a call and was urged to have biopsies on two areas of microcalcifications that were found in one of my breasts. As a mammography technologist, I knew it was an abnormal situation."

During all this, Nicole was undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments to be a gestational surrogate for the second time.

"I was taking medications for the pending IVF transfer and had to make time over lunch to squeeze in the biopsy appointment. I really wasn’t thinking that this would turn out to be serious."

But it was very serious. Providence nurse navigator Kate Newgard spent the next morning trying to contact Nicole, who was in an offsite class.

"I was not paying attention to my phone," Nicole said. "I knew it was vibrating with calls but I let them go to voice mail until finally I got an urgent text message. It took my breath away. I did not expect the news that I had breast cancer because a majority of biopsies come back benign. But not mine"

Nicole was grateful that she was surrounded by colleagues when she got the news. Ironically, Theresa, the class instructor was also a cancer survivor.

"Father Jim and Theresa hugged me and prayed with me because they both know how important my faith is to me," Nicole said. "They were with me when I called my husband and family members."

Nicole describes the news as a "huge shock" and said she was very emotional.

"The IVF treatments had increased my hormones, which didn’t help," she said. "I also had to come to terms with not being a surrogate, and having to explain to my own three children what I was about to go through instead of pregnancy."

Nicole had a double mastectomy on November 30, 2012, and is now undergoing a latissimus dorsi flap procedure – breast reconstruction that uses tissue from muscles in her back to form new breasts.

"My own body is now being rearranged to re-create my breasts along with the use of an implant," Nicole said. "I talked with many women who are cancer survivors. We are each other’s support, providing commiseration and comfort. So much so in fact, that we can flash each other and compare how our new bodies look. We have to be able to use humor to lighten a very serious situation that each of us has gone through. I am grateful for many things, including the support of these women, for having the opportunity to get a screening that allowed me to survive breast cancer, and now get a 20-year-old’s body from the ordeal. I have to look at the bright side because I am a survivor."

Nicole said that as a mammography technologist she always had a good understanding of the need for regular breast screenings. Now she can speak from personal experience as she continues in her role as the Providence Breast Center coordinator. In addition, she and her husband have teamed up with friends and family to launch the BricktownE Brewing Company, a Medford brew pub.