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Thursday, May 27, 2021 - From caregiver to patient to caregiver again: One teammate’s battle with breast cancer

Clinical Dietitian Specialist Andrea Zalno was the picture of health at 32 but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

She had completed a half-marathon less than a year ago but now her joints hurt so bad she could hardly run. Blood work showed something was off, too. And then she felt a lump in her breast.

She was working at Roper Rehabilitation Hospital in July 2020 when she took what she thought would be a short break for a mammogram. COVID-19 precautions prevented her from having anyone there with her.

 patient on bike

The scan revealed it was invasive ductal carcinoma. She didn’t have any family history of breast cancer.

 patient on bike

“I think I was in shock,” she said. “I was alone, and that was the hardest part.”

That moment was the start of a journey that would involve a roughly six-month leave of absence from her job, followed by chemotherapy, hair loss, surgery and radiation.

“I’m not sure how it has changed me yet but I know I’m growing from it,” she said.

Last summer, further testing revealed the cancer was triple-negative, which grows and spreads faster, has limited treatment options and a worse prognosis.

The cancer was growing so quickly that Andrea started chemotherapy just three weeks after diagnosis. She would struggle for months with not having enough time for fertility preservation, or egg harvesting to assist her in the future with the ability to have children.

 patient on bike

The chemotherapy infusion lasted 19 weeks. It started every other week then intensified to weekly, and the treatments lasted two to five hours. It’s hard for Andrea to remember details through this time because the medication left her foggy, she said. But what sticks out is the love and support she felt from her family, friends and work colleagues.

One of Andrea’s defining physical characteristics is her stunning red hair, and she lost all of it during treatment.

“I always felt it was a blessing, and I lost a piece of me,” she said. “I don’t think I realized how hard that would be.”

On Jan. 5, she had a partial mastectomy, followed by 35 radiation treatments. She now takes an oral chemotherapy that will last until November.

 patient on bike

Andrea’s faith sustains her, and she has focused on praising God through this storm. She’s convinced it was God’s work that led her to end up working at the Cancer Center where she’s been a patient for so many treatments.

Katie Rodysill, the dietitian who previously worked at the Cancer Center, decided to return home to Nebraska in January as Andrea came back to work, and Andrea applied for and was offered her job.

“I prayed and knew God’s plan and timing are always perfect,” she said. “I now have the honor to work with patients being faced with cancer diagnosis of their own.”

Andrea knows well the emotions patients might be experiencing as they drive to the Cancer Center.

“I think about how lucky I am to support other people in their cancer experience,” she said. “It’s a gift to be there.”

Andrea said she’s grateful for each of her doctors, including her primary care physician Dr. Emily Mika, who quickly scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound when she discovered the lump; radiologist Dr. Jeffrey Bennett, who was compassionate, understanding and explained every step of the ultrasound-guided needle biopsy procedure; surgeon Dr. Megan Baker, who she described as a 10/10 and a nurturing leader; medical oncologist, Dr. George Keogh, whose love for his patients was evident even in his phone calls; and radiation oncologist Dr. Laurie Harrell, who asked questions about her as a person rather than a cancer patient.

“I’m lucky to not only be a member of the RSFH team, but to have been cared for by the best RSFH has to offer,” she said. “They saved my life.”    

 patient on bike

Everything you need to know about getting screened

Roper St. Francis Healthcare is leading the fight against cancer and encouraging Lowcountry residents not to delay cancer screenings that they might have put off during the pandemic.

During the past year, local screenings for many types of cancer have fallen. Roper St. Francis Healthcare offers prevention and screening programs for a range of cancers, such as skin cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer.

“Cancer does not take a break during a pandemic,” said Dr. Phillip Albaneze, a surgical oncologist with Roper St. Francis Physician Partners Breast Surgery. “We still want to find them as early as possible so that we can treat them and so people can live long and healthy lives of being cancer free.”

To schedule a screening, call (843) 402-CARE (2273). To see our screening classes and programs, visit rsfh.com/cancer-classes.

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