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A Breast Exam Before Christmas Saved the Life of a Patient

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Last Christmas, Cathy McQueen didn’t “feel so great” and noticed a strange indent on her right breast — quickly finding out she had a form of breast cancer.

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Cathy McQueen (middle) posed with her nurse navigator, Jamie Angeline (left), and Dr. Roshani Patel (right) during their grocery store tour.

Last Christmas, Cathy McQueen casually told her doctor about a strange dimple on her left breast and was told she needed to take action immediately.

“I had a clear mammogram and ultrasound in April of 2022. And by Thanksgiving of 2022, I had a very, very bizarre indent along the side of my left breast. (It) turned out to be the tumor pulling on my skin,” McQueen said. “I would normally be somebody (who) would have blown it off after the holidays and just waited for my next annual exam in April of 2023. And thank goodness I did not; (it) probably saved my life because we were able to catch it before it spread.”

Dr. Roshani Patel, a breast surgical oncologist at Hackensack Meridian Health and medical director for breast surgery at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, knew how important it was for her and McQueen to act quickly.

Patel recalled McQueen mentioning the indentation on her breast at an already-scheduled appointment the week before Christmas.

“When I looked, it didn't look right to me,” Patel explained. “I (had) an ultrasound machine in my office and it felt thick — it didn't feel right to me. And it was a change from the last time that I examined her.”

Between Christmas and the new year, McQueen received a diagnosis of stage 2 invasive lobular carcinoma and noted how grateful she was for Patel, who cleared her schedule despite the holidays that week.

“Thankfully, they had tested my lymph nodes and nothing had spread, but my tumor was on the large side, which is really terrifying because again, I had a clear mammogram ultrasound in April of that same year,” McQueen explained.

“If she had waited a couple more months, the cancer would have gone to the lymph nodes … under her arm,” said Patel during a separate interview. “She had lobular cancer, which is typically a slow-growing breast cancer, and sometimes you don't see it very well in imaging. But we reviewed all of her prior films and it wasn't until we saw her diagnostic imaging that we really saw any changes.”

By the end of January, McQueen said, she opted for a double mastectomy, and “everything went smoothly.”

“I opted for the double mastectomy, just to make sure that (I) didn't have to go through this again,” she said. “And because of the size of my tumor, it was determined that I needed chemotherapy, radiation and then an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) to stop the estrogen from flowing.”

While the process from diagnosis to treatment ran smoothly, McQueen mentioned how difficult it was to keep her diagnosis a secret from her family during Christmas.

“It was terrifying; it was it was devastating for my family. We ended up not sharing this news, we kind of hid it from everybody through the holidays, we have a lot of little kids in our families, both my husband and my family,” she said. “This was the first holiday we were all getting together after COVID. And I knew that no one would be able to keep it together and fake it for the kids. So we just decided to wait, which I have no regrets (about). But it was really, really tough.”

READ MORE: When Cancer Evolves

Nutrition and having a balanced diet, McQueen noted, became an important step for her during this process. Now, she’s living a much healthier lifestyle, thanks to a proper diet plan Patel helped her arrange after a grocery store tour.

Patel and McQueen walked from aisle to aisle, discussing food items that McQueen should and should not be eating, how she should continue the diet after the end of treatment, and what to do regarding chemotherapy tips and tricks.

“I would have never in a million years thought that ShopRite had already pulled rotisserie chicken,” said McQueen.

Patel had advised her, “If you're not feeling great, run in and go grab it. Don't worry about picking up the whole rotisserie chicken and then (having) to prepare it.”

After committing to an appropriate diet, McQueen emphasized that she had lost 27 pounds — and not from cancer.

“I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I'm gonna say it with confidence: cancer saved my life,” McQueen said. “It was the universe kicking me in the butt to say, 'You have no choice, you have to take care of your body or you're not going to live as long as you would like to.' I've never stuck to a diet for a year and now it's second nature.”

Patel realized that an encouraging, yet effective approach to nutrition and dieting was necessary for her patients, recognizing that fad diets were not the right direction.

“We set up a tour initially once a month, but twice a month because it became very popular. So, all my patients would sign up for that,” Patel said. “We (took) them through the store for two hours, (did) a little cooking demo with them give them things to try, just to kind of encourage these healthy changes, some of the patients were getting chemotherapy.

“We would show them things in the store that would help them through that and how to modify their diet, because sometimes patients cannot eat anything, or they're not choosing the right things to eat when they get chemo, so they become deconditioned. This usually helps patients … get back in shape, and just have better outcomes from them.”

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