Nancy Berger: Breast Cancer

Nancy Berger was 48 and had just started graduate school in social work when the diagnosis of breast cancer turned her plans upside-down.

Nancy Berger was 48 and had just started graduate school in social work when the diagnosis of breast cancer turned her plans upside-down. Today, after having surgery and completing chemotherapy and radiation at Allegiance Health, Nancy has graduated, recently embarked on a new career, is cancer free and grateful to be alive.

Nancy’s cancer journey began when she was getting dressed for work and noticed a lump near the middle of her chest. “I don’t have a family history of cancer,” she said. “And because of where the lump was located cancer never even entered my mind.” At her routine mammogram a month later, Nancy mentioned the lump. “That raised an alarm, and I was sent to the hospital for a diagnostic mammogram,” she said.

Because the tumor was located outside the mammography area, it couldn’t be screened that way. From the results of an ultrasound, Nancy’s doctor thought the lump was an inflamed lymph node. To be sure, she referred her to general surgeon Phillip Frantzis, MD, who performed a biopsy—a procedure to remove a piece of the tumor for a laboratory analysis.

Nancy’s biopsy results confirmed breast cancer, and further testing showed it was an aggressive form with a high rate of recurrence. Dr. Frantzis performed a lumpectomy, which is surgery to remove just the tumor.

There were many decisions to be made regarding Nancy’s treatment. “Sometimes I just wanted to be told what to do, but that wasn’t how it worked,” she said. “I was always made to feel I was part of my care team, and we always worked together. The doctors and nurses gave their opinions and made sure I had enough information to make an informed decision of my own.” Nancy said she made some choices that went against her doctors’ recommendations, “But there was no judgment or blame, just support.” She was pleased that her husband, Ken, was also treated as a part of her care team. “Every person respected us as being in treatment together. Ken was included in every conversation,” she recalled.

“I was always made to feel I was part of my care team, and we always worked together."

Nancy Berger, breast cancer patient

Nancy volunteered to participate in a clinical trial—a research study that tests the effectiveness of new medications or procedures. “I knew there were risks involved, but there were also advantages,” Nancy said. “I felt empowered to participate in research that will help others with breast cancer.” Participation in the trial included 10 rounds of chemotherapy, with each session lasting several hours.

Nancy remembers that she was scared at her first chemotherapy session and started to cry. “I knew it was the beginning of a terrible journey. But a nurse practitioner, Diane Bohn, gave me a hug and put me instantly at ease,” she said. “My eyes well up just thinking about her kindness.” Also providing support at Nancy’s first chemotherapy session was Laurie Collier, RN, who had been very helpful explaining the details of Nancy’s clinical trial. “Laurie and Diane gave me warm blankets and made everything okay,” Nancy said.

Allegiance staff continued to provide personal support for the full course of Nancy’s treatment. “I was never made to feel like a burden. They always honored and acknowledged my feelings,” Nancy recalled. “Because of them, I knew it would be okay to come back for my next treatment. I knew I’d be well-cared-for and didn’t have to be afraid.” 

Though Nancy “never expected the level of personal care” she received at Allegiance, it was especially important to her because she didn’t know anyone else who had cancer at that time. “I had so much help and support from my Allegiance care team, it felt like my feet never touched the ground,” she said.

Nancy’s  strongest supporter was Ken, who was with her for every chemotherapy session. “My part was easy,” she said. “He had the hard part of taking care of me.” Her son and daughter provided much-needed emotional support, too, boosting her spirits with lots of surprises along the way. Nancy also had several good friends on her support team. “One brought us a home-cooked meal and fresh bread every Sunday night after my chemotherapy. Another who is very spiritual prayed for me and did a lot of hugging and hand-holding,” Nancy said. “When a few of my friends were later diagnosed with breast cancer, I remembered how important that support was for me, and I was able to be there for them.”

“Overall, it was a very positive experience. I knew that if I had to have treatment, this was where I wanted to be—not out of town."

Nancy Berger, breast cancer patient

Despite the physical and emotional challenges of her treatment, Nancy said, “Overall, it was a very positive experience. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it is difficult to explain how good it was at Allegiance. I knew that if I had to have treatment, this was where I wanted to be—not out of town.”

Nancy wanted her last day of treatment to be a celebration, for herself and everyone who supported her. “So I surprised my team by showing up as the ‘Boob Fairy,’ in sparkly pink tulle, with a magic wand and crown,” she said. “I had cried on my first day because I was scared, and I cried on my last day because the nurses had become my friends. The Allegiance Cancer Center always felt like home in my heart, and when I go back every six months for a check-up, I feel like I am going home again.”

Nancy sees her cancer experience as a gift. “Cancer changed me. It helped me understand what is important. It’s not important to be perfect and have a perfectly clean house. It’s important to live. The blessing of this experience is gratitude—for every moment of every day. 

"I strive to be mindful of everything around me: my morning coffee, snuggles with my grandchildren, paying bills, going to work. I want to be present and fully alive. That is the gift
I was given.”

Since her treatment ended, Nancy is more active than ever. “I am running again, riding my bike and swimming for the first time in 30 years—I even participated in a lazy triathlon at the Y,” she said. “I make time for my yoga practice and for moments of reflection and peace. I also take long drives and day trips with my husband, and we planted a big vegetable garden last year —just because I can!”

There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But you may help lower your risk by maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting how much alcohol you drink and getting regular exercise.