In the summer of 2017, Oakland native Caroline Sorenson was packing her bags for a trip to England when she felt a lump in her right breast. Since Caroline was young, healthy and physically active, swimming and horseback riding regularly, she figured it was nothing to worry about. She even considered waiting to call her doctor until after she returned from abroad, but after a few days, she decided to make an appointment just to be safe.
Cancer really is behind me now, which I never thought it would be.
After an initial examination, Caroline’s doctor, Catherine Jiam-Seagren, M.D., a Sutter East Bay Medical Foundation family medicine physician, sent her to the Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center for a mammogram and ultrasound. Still convinced the lump was most likely nothing, Caroline went in for the tests alone, without her husband or any family members along for support.
“After the ultrasound, the radiologist came in to tell me that it was most likely cancer,” she says. “I just thought, this can’t be possible. I was only 35, so breast cancer had never crossed my mind. I was in denial.”
Even though both the radiologist and the nurse comforted her, Caroline had a lot to process in the coming days and weeks.
“The first thing I asked was if could delay my chemo to go to England,” she says. “But in reality, I knew my treatment was more important than a trip.” The doctors agreed, and Caroline cancelled her vacation.
Team Approach to Treatment
A few days after she was diagnosed, a patient navigator from CARBHC called Caroline to offer guidance in figuring out her appointments and treatment. CARBHC’s patient navigator program provides individualized assistance for women with breast cancer and their families. This extra level of support, in turn, allows patients to focus on getting better.
“My navigator, Karen, actually had the same kind of breast cancer I did,” Caroline says. “I had a lot of questions for her, and she helped me talk through tough decisions I had to make about my treatment.”
Four weeks later, Caroline took a leave from her job as a special education assistant at an elementary school and began four-and-a- half months of chemotherapy at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the ABSMC Herrick campus. She had a mastectomy in December 2017, followed by six weeks of radiation.
“I tried to be positive about my diagnosis,” Caroline says. “I thought if I have to have cancer, then at least I’m in the Bay Area, which has the best hospital and treatments. I felt like my entire care team really knew what they were doing. I didn’t have a single bad experience with anyone at ABSMC.”
Caroline especially appreciated that her care team — oncologist Uma Suryadevara, M.D., surgeon Rita Kwan-Fienberg, M.D., and radiation oncologist Christine Chung, M.D. — thoroughly explained her treatments and involved her in mapping out a care plan.
“Each chemotherapy drug comes with benefits and drawbacks, so Dr. Suryadevara would explain her thinking to me and include me in the decision-making,” she says. Similarly, when Caroline was weighing whether to have a lumpectomy or mastectomy, Dr. Kwan-Fienberg talked through her options and helped her arrive at the best choice for her situation.
“All of my doctors were really great — I can’t say enough about how wonderful they were,” Caroline says. “They would always answer my questions and help me find answers when they didn’t know.”
In addition to the support of her husband and family, Caroline also relied heavily on CARBHC services such as the Younger Women’s Support Group. Although skeptical at first — “I just thought I didn’t need a support group; I thought I could do this on my own,” she recalls — Caroline attended group meetings every other week throughout her treatment.
The main reason she ended up trying the group was because she felt cooped up in her house, having taken time off from work and unable to maintain her morning swimming and weekly horseback riding. “I couldn’t do any of my normal activities throughout the chemo, which I think is why I was having such a hard time mentally,” Caroline says. “I found that with the support group, I could complain as much as I wanted and everybody understood. It was also helpful to meet women who were ahead of me in treatment and on the other end of it.”
Return to Normalcy
By late January 2018, Caroline was able to return to work and resume her activities. “Now I’m back to doing all my old stuff,” she says. “Cancer really is behind me now, which I never thought it would be. You feel like you’ll be going through treatment forever, but it does end.”
Caroline finally traveled to England last summer. From the time of her diagnosis to when she took the trip, she thought long and hard about what life means to her. “It sounds cheesy, but you just have to live each day to the fullest because you have no idea what can happen,” Caroline says. “Now that I’m through it all, I look back and think the cancer experience wasn’t so bad. It was terrifying at the time, but I am so grateful for the care I received at ABSMC and to be on the other side of it now.”