SKIP TO CONTENT

On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

Breast Cancer Survivor: Traci Cook

10/20/2021

There was a moment nearly nine years ago when Traci Cook looked in the mirror, and the person staring back at her was almost unrecognizable. Between a bald head, a caved-in chest and a thin frame, Traci could hardly process the transformation from her normal self.

“I looked in the mirror and just thought, ‘Who are you?’” she recalls. “As women, we are told we are pretty, or we strive to be pretty. I was not that pretty girl anymore. I looked like an alien and could not recognize myself. I sat down in the bathroom that day and just cried, not knowing who or what I was anymore.”

As traumatizing as that was, Traci, a business development specialist at INTEGRIS Health, is proud to call herself a breast cancer survivor. With the help of her family and the team at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute, Traci was able to overcome the most difficult journey of her life. This is her story.

 

Understanding the diagnosis

A routine mammogram screening turned into a somber day for Traci on January 28, 2013. Traci showed up at the INTEGRIS Comprehensive Breast Center for her annual scan and left with life-changing news: the radiologist found a small “shadow” on her right breast near the armpit.

The extent of this “shadow” was unknown. Three additional mammograms couldn’t quite diagnose the problem. Finally, an ultrasound identified two masses in her right breast. It wasn’t until after her initial breast cancer surgery that she had an official diagnosis — stage 2 invasive lobular carcinoma in her right breast and lobular carcinoma in situ (precancerous cells) in her left breast.

“I was scared about the unknown future, how chemotherapy would affect me and how losing my breasts would affect me,” Traci recalls. “I did not understand what estrogen positive cancer meant and that scared me, too.”

Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) is the second most common invasive breast cancer, accounting for 10 percent of cases or 180,000 women each year. This type of cancer originates in the lobules, a gland in the breast that makes milk. The invasive aspect means the cancer has spread to surrounding breast tissues. Depending on the severity, it can also attack nearby lymph nodes or other organs.

ILC is typically more difficult to see on imaging because the cancer cells spread in a line formation instead of developing a lump or mass like other types of breast cancers. Many cases of ILC are usually estrogen receptor positive, meaning the hormone estrogen attaches to the receptors and speeds up cancer growth.

 

Treating invasive lobular carcinoma

The diagnosis for Traci was just the beginning. She was soon told by her doctors that “time was not my friend” due to the fast-spreading nature of invasive lobular carcinoma.

Just 15 days after her diagnosis, Traci was scheduled for a double mastectomy, a procedure that removes both breasts. Her oncologist later informed her she would need four months of chemotherapy to ensure the cancer and precancerous cells were destroyed.

“Everyone always talks about chemo being so horrible, but my oncologist really took precautions to keep my side effects under control,” Traci says. “I lost a lot of weight but never got too sick. She made sure I slept comfortably during the worst days. I never missed one day of work while going through chemotherapy.”

Instead, Traci’s mastectomy was painful to recover from. Following surgery, she developed lymphedema in her arm, a condition in which fluid builds up due to damage or a blockage of the lymph system. She received treatment from the INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation center, where she learned valuable information from the physical therapist to help relieve the swelling.

 

Enduring the most difficult time

Traci rang the cancer bell July 3, 2013, nearly six months following her initial diagnosis. She felt proud she had progressed through the treatment while still being able to continue working and caring for her family.

“I was relieved to be finished and was ready to move forward,” she recalls.

However, the most difficult part of her journey was still to come. Many cancer patients who undergo a mastectomy eventually choose to have breast reconstruction surgery to rebuild the shape and look of their previous breasts.

This process was incredibly painful for Traci, both mentally and physically. She wasn’t an initial candidate for the reconstruction surgery, forcing her to wait a year after her double mastectomy.

Traci initially had tissue expanders surgically placed into her chest, which were monitored by a plastic surgeon weekly. These temporary implants are expanded with saline to gradually stretch the breast tissue to make room for the implants.

A few weeks into the expansion, she started to feel a burning sensation under her left arm. A trip to the emergency room indicated she had an infection, although which type wasn’t clear. IV antibiotics didn’t help, which led to days of testing to determine a diagnosis. Finally, doctors discovered she had methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterial infection that is resistant to many traditional antibiotics.

Doctors used a central line in Traci’s neck to treat the infection after they discovered it had spread to the top of her heart. They feared it could damage her heart if left untreated.

A two-week hospital stay followed, and she was finally able to have the expanders removed and her permanent breast implants inserted.

Two months later, she noticed her right implant had migrated underneath her armpit. She was devastated and in shock after a surgical consultation revealed there was nothing they could do for her.

Twelve more months passed, but fortunately for Traci, she was able to find an amazing surgeon who repaired the implant with two more surgeries.

 

Finding inspiration amid the challenges

Until you or a loved one experiences cancer, it’s hard to quantify how difficult it is to navigate a breast cancer diagnosis. Put simply, it wasn’t easy for Traci.

“I was not always positive. There were days I would just cry and not want to get out of bed,” she says.

Support is key, and Traci had an army of people in her corner led by her three children — Ciara, Hannah and Joshua.

On her most challenging days, her children inspired her. She knew they needed her, and her role as a mother helped her get through the darker periods. Traci was especially inspired by her oldest child, Ciara.

“She really stepped up to the challenge and took care of me. She was a college student in Oklahoma City at the time,” Traci says. “She would drive me around when needed, pick me up off the floor when I passed out from overdoing it and helped to take care of her siblings when I didn't have the strength to.”

In addition to her family, Traci took advantage of the free counseling offered at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute. She also found a therapist to help manage her feelings and emotions during and after her treatment.

Daily prayer helped, too. She prayed for peace, wisdom and guidance.

“God gave me this peace that is not explainable. It was a true gift,” Traci says.

 

Advice to other breast cancer patients

At the time of her diagnosis in 2013, Traci admittedly didn’t know anything about breast cancer. In retrospect, she wishes she had a better understanding about community resources, such as financial assistance, and counseling for cancer patients.

Traci had a great team at INTEGRIS Health and was fortunate to receive counseling from the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute. But Traci wasn’t quite aware of other resources she could have used, specifically the Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center. This resource center offers patients nutrition consultations, spiritual support, relaxation techniques, turban and wig fittings, transportation coordination and much more.

“Ask questions when you do not understand what your providers are saying. Let people help you,” Traci recommends to fellow cancer patients. “Find out which resources are available for you and your family, and utilize those you need. Listen to your body — if you feel like you need to rest, rest! Keep on living and don't let cancer or treatment take that away from you.”

She also stressed to focus on life and not let cancer consume you, as difficult as that can be. Traci had 10 surgeries during a seven-year period. She finally felt like she got her life back five years ago. She went back to the gym, reconnected with old friends and cherished the time given to her. 

“I have one life on this earth and plan to make a difference with it, even if it just means being kind to others each day,” she says.

 

A breast cancer diagnosis is scary for both patients and their families. Our goal at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute is to guide you through your journey, from initial diagnosis through remission. Visit our breast health page to learn more about the services we offer or contact us today to schedule a screening

 

Subscribe to the INTEGRIS Health On Your Health blog

Subscribe for regular emails full of useful and interesting Oklahoma-centric health and wellness info, from the doctors and health experts at INTEGRIS Health.

How to Give Yourself a Breast Exam in Five Easy Steps

Mammograms

What's Your Risk of Inheriting Breast Cancer?