“I was very fortunate to receive care and counsel from surgeons and specialists who I’ve worked with personally for many years and trust implicitly, which gave me a greater peace of mind throughout the process that’s likely not available to my patients,” says Dr. Witherspoon. “Going through this experience really gave me a deeper perspective on what my patients are going through, and it’s helped me empathize in a way I couldn’t have before.”
For many women with breast cancer, initial treatment of surgery and chemotherapy is enough to keep cancer at bay. Unfortunately for Dr. Witherspoon, a few short years later, her cancer returned. A nagging pain in her hip led to an x-ray and then a PET scan, which showed something suspicious in the base of her right lung.
“It was a small wispy thing – and we all wondered, could it be breast cancer? Because it didn’t light up on imaging, we decided to watch it closely. So I had several CTs that year and it didn’t change. I went on this way for another year – until 2019, when it changed into something looking like a cancer. Now it was time to know for sure,” Dr. Witherspoon said.
A navigation bronchoscopy, a visual examination of the inside of the lung, allowed samples to be taken of the tissue in the lung. Pathology once again confirmed it was cancer, which prompted a switch to an injectable hormone blocker and CDK4 inhibitors, which interrupt signals that stimulate cancerous cells. She’s been on those medications for two years, which appear to be working well.
“The drugs I’m taking right now, I’ll be taking for the foreseeable future, until they stop working. I’m in a maintenance phase with this diagnosis, and periodic CTs monitor my progress. The medication is working, and we count that as success,” says Dr. Witherspoon. “But the treatment has side effects like fatigue and a compromised immune system, which makes me more susceptible to many different illnesses. All in all, I’m doing well and taking things one day at a time.”
For Dr. Witherspoon, the experience of having breast cancer – after working throughout her entire career to fight this disease – has been a surreal experience. As a breast surgeon with more than 25 years of experience, she understood the process and knew the ins and outs of her treatment options. And because she knew she was receiving the very best care, she didn’t experience the deep anxiety that many women with breast cancer face.