Living Tenaciously: Chanda Kersey’s Story

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Living Tenaciously: Chanda Kersey’s Story

2021 was a busy year for Chanda Kersey. She was busy with her career as a physician assistant at the dermatology clinic at OU Health, as well as teaching on faculty at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine Physician Assistant program. She was in the throes of moving into a new home that was being renovated and, on top of it all, raising a 9 and 11 year old – not to mention all of their extracurricular activities.

It was also the year Chanda turned 40, and aware of the recommendation to start breast cancer screening at 40, she had her first mammogram. When she was called back for a biopsy, Chanda wasn’t overly concerned. She had dense breast tissue and no family history of breast cancer. The move and a busy schedule were keeping Chanda busy, so she put off the follow-up for over a month. Then, she learned that the right breast lump that was biopsied was, in fact, cancer, and specifically, HER2-positive breast cancer.

Chanda’s Diagnosis & Treatment

HER2-positive is a protein that helps breast cancer cells grow quickly and to spread faster than HER2-negative. HER2-positive is an aggressive form of breast cancer that requires aggressive and prolonged treatment, and it is much more likely to respond to treatment that targets the protein.

Chanda armed herself with as much information about the cancer and treatment as she could. She recognized that it was not going to be an easy journey and she relied on the expertise of Wajeeha Razaq, M.D., hematologist/oncologist at OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center.

Treatment started with eight rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the 4-centimeter tumor and then, under the care of Stephenson Cancer Center breast surgical oncologist, Juan Claros-Sorto, M.D., FACS, Chanda had a double mastectomy. The initial tumor in the right breast had shrunk but had not disappeared, and a lesion was discovered in the left breast. As a precaution, both breasts were removed as well as a concerning lymph node. A sentinel lymph node biopsy confirmed that the lymph node that had been removed was positive for cancer.

Following the mastectomy, Chanda’s chemotherapy was changed, and she required nine more rounds. Six weeks post-surgery Chanda underwent a month of intense radiation treatment, and she received the highest dose of radiation that can be given for breast cancer, which radiated the whole right side of her chest. The chemotherapy did not stop through the radiation and in total, she had chemotherapy for a year.

Chanda continued to work full-time as much as she could throughout her treatment, taking care of patients. She would take off the day of treatment, return to work the next day, and then take the following day off as she felt sick on that day and needed IV fluids. A home nursing company attended to her on a Sunday, administering more IV fluids.

As the weeks progressed and the chemotherapy accumulated and built up in her system, she started needing to take a week off after each treatment. Chanda grew weaker after each chemotherapy session, lost her hair and was struggling with shortness of breath.

“My kids hated it when I lost my hair. My son was 9 and it was frightening for him,” Chanda said.

The chemotherapy threw Chanda into menopause and the hot flashes were so intense she couldn’t always tolerate wearing a beanie or a cap. On those days she would wear bigger earrings so she didn’t need to cover her head.

“I was so self-conscious as the treatment took away so much of my natural looks and caused a lot of weight gain,” she explained. “I was bald, I had lost my breasts, and it was overwhelming.”

Chanda and her husband couldn’t wait until the chemotherapy regime would end, as that would mark the finish line. However, when that day arrived, they realized that it wasn’t over. Chanda would require tamoxifen — an oral chemotherapy — for 10 years. She was also struggling with the side effects of the chemotherapy, radiation, and the tamoxifen she had started. She had nerve pain, anxiety, joint pain, insomnia, and felt totally depleted physically, mentally and emotionally. Throughout it all, Chanda and her husband were working and looking after their kids and life couldn’t just stop because she was feeling so awful.

A New Normal

Early 2023 was especially difficult for Chanda and her mood reflected the dreary winter around her. She felt angry, upset and overwhelmed.

“I was being told that I needed to get used to how I was feeling as this was my new normal,” she remembers. “But I didn’t want to get used to it. I didn’t want this to be normal. My hair was growing back and the treatment was finished so people just assumed that I must be fine and feeling fantastic — I wasn’t fine. I was a shell of myself and nowhere close to where I was two years earlier.”

Chanda drew on her faith to help her get through.

“I was never angry at God,” she said. “I knew God could use it for good and He revealed His goodness to me in so many ways during my treatment.”

Through the chemotherapy treatments, Chanda learned about Tenaciously Teal, a nonprofit organization that donates care packs for cancer patients going through chemotherapy. The organization also gives out gas and meal cards to help with costs, and performs Brave Shaves, a party where cancer patients can have their head shaved in a controlled and celebratory environment. Chanda was also asked to attend an event with the organization where she had her hair and makeup professionally done, wore a generously donated outfit, and modeled it on the runway.

“I said no at first. I thought, that’s not me,” shared Chanda. “But then I thought, why not? All of the models have an instant connection as we are cancer survivors — they just get it; how hard it is.

Chanda said it’s that understanding and empathy that helped her push through, from support from her physicians and the care team at Stephenson Cancer Center and her OU Health colleagues as well as organizations like Tenaciously Teal.

“I am blown away by their willingness to support this and I love how much Stephenson Cancer Center cares for their own,” Chanda said.

Six months after the treatment Chanda is growing stronger and having more good days than bad. She doesn’t have the stamina she used to but feels as though she is finally starting to move forward.

“I still can’t believe what I’ve been through,” Chanda recalls. “It was so, so hard. I knew it would be hard, but I have two kids and a husband, and I had the will to live. I had a great support group. My church helped out and my colleagues supported me and looked after my patients when I wasn’t available. I receive the gold standard of care and all the staff at Stephenson Cancer Center are fantastic. They see me as a person, not just a patient.”

OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center provides multidisciplinary care of surgery, radiation and medical oncology with specialized oncology pathologists, cancer-specific pharmacists, supportive care and nurse navigation all at a single site that is National Cancer Institute (NCI)- Designated and National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers(NAPBC), said Dr. Claros. As the state’s only NCI-designated Cancer Center, researchers at Stephenson Cancer Center are creating the latest clinical breakthroughs and treatments and offering clinical trials for all types and stages of cancer.

“This sets our bar to a higher level of care compared to anyone in the state,” he said.

Additionally, Claros explained OU Health is the only health system in Oklahoma to offer all forms of immediate and delayed breast reconstruction, with options ranging from implants to microvascular flaps.

“This significantly helps our younger patients like Chanda,”Claros said.

Learn more about breast cancer care at Stephenson Cancer Center and about breast cancer screening and mammography near you.