For Twins, Separate Paths to Successful Breast Cancer Treatment

October 29, 2010

When Paula Shipp learned that her sister had breast cancer, she was faced with a swirl of emotion: sadness, sympathy, intense love and commitment. And there was worry, too. Paula and her sister Paulette are identical twins “so alike it’s scary sometimes,” Paula says.

There is a genetic component to breast cancer, Paula knew. And there was a cyst that wasn’t changing dramatically from year to year, but…

“When Paulette was diagnosed, I talked to my doctor and he said I should get a genetic screening done and have a specialist look at my mammograms and history,” Paula explains. “He said the risk was too great to waste time or to have it done by anyone but ‘the best of the best’. He told me to call Georgetown,” Paula says. “I’m so glad I did.”

Paula had her genetic testing done through the Fisher Center for Familial Cancer Research at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Rachel Nusbaum, MS, her genetic coundelor, shared the results with her and Paula’s new clinical team at Georgetown’s Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center.

“At age 50, Paula had a five-year history of a large cyst,” says Dr. Elizabeth Feldman, a breast surgeon. “We performed a minimally invasive core biopsy and discovered that it was breast cancer.”

For the twins, October 2008 was quite a month. “My sister had her mastectomy on October 14. My biopsy was October 15. One week later, October 22, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Paula says.

Paula’s cancer was more advanced than her sister’s, Dr. Feldman says. And to navigate her recovery, Paula would need that expert clinical team.

With a comprehensive program that includes nationally recognized, board-certified and all female breast surgeons who are fellowship-trained—as well as breast imaging, radiology, medical oncology, genetics and other experienced physicians—women receive exceptional care within a compassionate environment.

Dr. Feldman performed a mastectomy with lymph node biopsy. Then, Dr. Minetta Liu, oncologist, administered chemotherapy. Because the tumor was quite large, Dr. Chika Madu did post-mastectomy radiation. Later, Paula had a prophylactic mastectomy on the other side by Dr. Maurice Nahabedian, who specializes in breast cancer cases. He performed reconstructive surgery using skin and tissue implants from other parts of Paula’s body. “That kind of comprehensive team approach is the standard here at Georgetown,” Dr. Feldman says.

“Believe me, in a tragic situation like this you want warm and fuzzy, and the Georgetown team turned what should have been a very negative situation into a very positive journey,” Paula says.  “They are warm, but they are tough. Dr. Feldman said ‘you have a very aggressive disease and our approach is to be very aggressive in fighting it.’ But at the same time everyone—surgeons, nurses, technicians—took the time to explain what they were doing so that it was understandable. My sister listened to me talk about how wonderful my experience was, and even though her treatment was completely successful with another hospital, she brought all her records to Georgetown for review. I just can’t say enough good things about Georgetown.”

The sisters have become outspoken advocates for breast cancer awareness. They are lifelong residents of Washington, D.C., and were on stage at the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure® this past June. “We formed what we call ‘Ms. P’s Praise Team,’” Paulette says. “Together we are on a mission to walk and save more lives.”

Author: By Patrick Zickler, Georgetown University Hospital