Early detection saved her: Now it’s her job to encourage mammograms
BY AMBER SMITH
Christina Wallace was due for a mammogram, but she had just begun a new job and didn’t want to ask for time off. She canceled the appointment.
That night, she stretched out on her couch. Her cat, Gracie, jumped onto her, a paw landing on a painful spot on her breast. She reached up and felt a lump. She rescheduled the mammogram.
At the age of 38, Wallace’s second screening mammogram confirmed the lump she had felt. When biopsy results indicated cancer on a Friday, she admits, “I was so freaked out, I was in surgery by Monday morning to have a lumpectomy.”
That was in December 2014. Early in January 2015, she saw oncologist Sam Benjamin, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Upstate who also sees patients in Oswego, near Wallace’s home. He oversaw her cancer treatment and continues caring for her.
Wallace had a job at Oswego Hospital, but she wasn’t able to work on the days she received chemotherapy or radiation, so she took a leave to focus on her health.
She had medullary breast cancer, a rare type of invasive ductal cancer that begins in the milk ducts before spreading to the tissues around the duct. Surgery to remove the tumor is usually the first step of treatment, which may also include radiation therapy. That’s typically followed by systemic therapy — which may include hormone therapy, chemotherapy and/or therapy that targets specific proteins.
People who carry a genetic mutation known as BRCA1 are somewhat more likely to develop medullary breast cancer. Wallace says she has that gene, plus a related gene call PALB2, which her mother also had. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer after Wallace completed her treatment. Only, her mother’s cancer had spread throughout her body before it was discovered, and she died at the age of 59.
“I’m a huge advocate for early detection and regular mammograms,” Wallace says. She was vigilant. Her mother was not. “Had she been practicing that, she might still be with us.”
After she recovered from reconstructive therapy and cancer treatment, Wallace found her calling. She has a new job as a program specialist and case manager for Oswego County Opportunities. She helps connect people with screening for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. She helps people find doctors, or health insurance, or both, and she guides them through what to do if any of the screenings are abnormal.
Sometimes she tells people what she’s been through.
“I’ve had a few people who will say, ‘I have no cancer history, and I had my mammogram last year, so I’m good.’ That’s when I say, ‘Wait a minute....’
“I feel like, if my story is going to motivate them to take care of themselves, then I’m going to share it.”
Wallace continues to see Benjamin, the oncologist, every six months, in addition to regular appointments with her primary care doctor, gynecologist, radiation oncologist, and a doctor who specializes in the gastrointestinal system. Her follow-up care includes regular blood work and medical imaging. She maintains a strong faith. And every night, she comes home to her cat, Gracie.
This article is from the spring 2020 issue of Cancer Care magazine.
Christina Wallace with her cat, Gracie, who helped her find a lump. (photo by Susan Kahn)
Sam Benjamin, MD