No one is prepared to hear the words, “you have cancer,” not even those who work in health care. Dr. Cassandra Stroud, an emergency medicine doctor at Sharp Memorial Hospital, heard those words in late March 2019 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
As a doctor, she is prepared to comfort her patients and put them at ease. Now, the tables were turned. “I immersed myself in information about breast cancer,” says Dr. Stroud, who is also a Sharp Rees-Stealy Urgent Care doctor. “I sought information not only from medical abstracts and studies, but also from social media and personal stories. I shared my diagnosis with colleagues to open up the lines of communication for sharing advice, support and information.”
Dr. Stroud was not aware of any family history of the disease — neither of her parents were alive and neither had siblings — and she admits she had been remiss in getting regular mammograms.
“One of the Urgent Care nurses prompted me to come in for a long-overdue mammogram,” she says. “I credit her with prolonging and likely saving my life.”
The mammogram showed irregular calcifications just under the skin, prompting a biopsy, which confirmed DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). DCIS is the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast, and is considered the earliest form of breast cancer.
From caregiver to patient
Dr. Stroud then had to adjust to the unfamiliar role as patient.
“In the beginning, I was very clinical about the diagnosis,” she admits. “I kept emotions out of the equation. It was only on the day of my surgery that it hit me: I had cancer! It was like being hit by a wave — unexpected and overwhelming.”
Fortunately, she was surrounded by family and friends, along with tremendous support from her work families — the Sharp Memorial Hospital ER staff and the Sharp Rees-Stealy Urgent Care staff.
“It was through everyone’s support that I was able to keep my head above water and push through both the surgery and recovery,” says Dr. Stroud. “My daughter, who has no medical background, was particularly helpful in the immediate post-op weeks and essentially functioned as my own private nurse. My friends made sure I had transportation to all my appointments and visited me in the hospital and at home while I recovered. My colleagues even arranged for my dog trainer to get my two big dogs out and about regularly until when I could resume walking them myself.”
All this positive energy and support certainly helped. At a follow-up appointment with oncology two weeks after surgery, Dr. Stroud received the wonderful news that she did not need chemotherapy.
“My risk of metastatic disease was about 1 in 100,000, so essentially a cure,” she said.
In her role as a patient, she discovered something very special about the organization for which she works. “From the beginning to the end, I received amazing care,” says Dr. Stroud. “The interaction with staff at every level was professional and compassionate. The Sharp Experience is real!”
A reminder of the importance of regular screening
Having undergone this life-changing experience, Dr. Stroud has sound advice for women about breast examinations and mammograms.
“I thought my own self-exams were sufficient to check for breast lumps,” she says. “And I believed that because I felt good, I was in good health. I have learned that mammograms are vital to identifying breast cancer. Turns out, my cancer had no ‘lump’ — only a collection of abnormal cells inside some ducts that just happened to calcify and were detected by the mammogram.”
She is quite certain that by the time a lump would have formed, the cancer would have likely spread and advanced to her lymph nodes and possibly beyond.
“I was fortunate this was caught very early and had not spread to the lymph nodes.”
Not surprisingly, the entire experience has had a profound impact on her life.
“I no longer rely on the premise: I feel good, so I am good,” says Dr. Stroud. “I have embraced the concept of preventive medicine, which is a hallmark of service provided by Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. I am honored to be a part of such an elite group of doctors, nurses and staff, and have seen the impact that routine preventive health care has on the long-term wellness of patients.”