Advanced care, thoughtful treatment made world of difference for Ohio breast cancer survivor

Receiving great care is essential for patients going through cancer treatment. For Elfia Blake, the staff at Karmanos Cancer Institute at The Toledo Clinic Cancer Center, including one radiation oncology technologist named Nick, went above and beyond during her treatment.

68-year-old Blake from Wauseon, Ohio underwent radiation therapy for Stage 1 breast cancer at the new Karmanos location in Maumee, about 10 miles southwest of Toledo.

No time to think

In the beginning of 2021, Blake was feeling great, but by the end of the year, that no longer was the case. An anomaly in her left breast was detected on her yearly mammogram in November at The Toledo Clinic. A biopsy at McLaren St. Luke’s, also in Maumee, revealed invasive ductal carcinoma.

Blake was surprised to learn the cancer was in her left breast. She was diagnosed in her 40s with fibrocystic breast disease in her right breast, so she figured her right breast would be where cancer would form. Fibrocystic breast disease is a condition that can include fibroids and cysts but does not increase the likelihood of cancer.

“Fibrocystic breast disease is not cancerous, but it can make breast cancer a bit harder to detect,” said Faheem Ahmad, M.D., Blake’s radiation oncologist at the Karmanos location in Maumee. “When a woman has this condition, she usually has firm or rubbery scar-like tissue, thickened tissue, swelling, tenderness, pain and lumps.”

It is important for women to know what their normal breasts feel like — especially if they have benign cysts or fibroids. In Blake’s case, she knows if the fibroids make her breast feel sensitive or tender, it is a sign that she needs to cut back on her caffeine intake.

Generally, women should begin routine mammography screening at age 40, sometimes earlier. The age women should start screening for breast cancer varies for each woman and depends on many factors, including family health history. These routine appointments are essential — it is one way how specialists catch breast cancer early.

“Routine mammography allows for early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. When cancers are found in early stages, the treatment is much less extensive and toxic, and the cure rates are much higher,” said Dr. Ahmad.

Blake learned her biopsy results in mid-December 2021. These test results came just two days after her brother, Luke Moreno, died at age 57. He battled prostate cancer for almost two years.

“I was upset,” she said of learning the results. “It was scary.”

Breast cancer is not Blake’s first cancer diagnosis. About 20 years ago, she was diagnosed with polycythemia vera. This blood cancer begins in the bone marrow and causes the blood to become thickened from too many red blood cells. She still takes a chemotherapy drug and has phlebotomies (removal of a large volume of blood) to keep the disease under control.

On top of her brother’s death, this new cancer diagnosis was a lot to deal with at once.

“I hardly had time to think about it,” Blake said of her health concerns. She was driving back and forth from her home to Chicago, where Moreno lived, taking on more family responsibilities and planning her brother’s memorial service.

Despite her increased commitments, Blake met with a general surgeon at McLaren St. Luke’s. On that January day in 2022, she went into her appointment prepared to have a mastectomy, a surgery to remove the entire breast.

“I was going to remove my breast,” she said. “I didn’t want to go through this again.”

After talking with the surgeon, Blake decided to get a lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery to remove the tumor), followed by radiation therapy treatments. Her medical oncologist at The Toledo Clinic Cancer Center in Maumee, who Blake sees for treatment of her polycythemia vera, referred her to Dr. Ahmad at Karmanos, located at the same facility.

During her series of 21 treatments, Blake's best friend Cathy Gerken died of uterine cancer that had spread to her spleen. She was just 68 years old. Blake and Gerken had been friends for 52 years after meeting in a vocational education class on childhood development.

Comfort to Keep Fighting

Blake appreciates the comfort she received from the Karmanos staff before and after her best friend’s death. She says Nick was available to help her get on and off the treatment couch daily. When Gerken died, Blake came to her appointment heartbroken. Nick comforted her as her emotions and tears spilled over.

According to Blake, Nick is not the exception at the cancer center — he’s the norm.

“It was wonderful,” Blake said. “Even the receptionist was upbeat every day.”

Blake is one of the first radiation therapy patients at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Maumee; she completed her treatments in June 2022. Specialists began treating patients at this new location in April 2022. In partnership with The Toledo Clinic, Karmanos provides radiation oncology services at the new facility with the state-of-the-art Varian TrueBeam™ linear accelerator featuring HyperArc™ and RapidArc™ capabilities. This image-guided machine precisely targets cancer while sparing surrounding tissue and vital organs. This ability to limit exposure of X-rays to healthy tissue benefits patients such as Blake with left-sided breast cancer. By targeting the tumor precisely, clinicians can avoid treating the heart, one of the most vital organs in the human body.

“We used the latest Varian TrueBeam™ technology, including deep inspiration breath holding techniques to treat her left-sided breast cancer while providing Mrs. Blake heart sparing therapy,” Dr. Ahmad explained. “I am proud to say she’s doing great following her radiation treatments.”

From her home in Wauseon, Maumee is about 30 miles east on Interstates 80 and 90. Blake said the 30-to-40-minute drive was closer and had less traffic than driving to Toledo.

Impressed by her cancer treatment and accommodations from staff, Blake has told “her ladies” about her experience at Karmanos. “Her ladies” are a group of women that were part of the senior fitness classes Blake taught for 12 years at a local church in Napoleon, Ohio. She keeps in touch with the group regularly.

Though Blake faced many challenges during her breast cancer journey, she said the advanced cancer care from Karmanos and the thoughtful treatment she received from the team made a world of difference.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, it is important to see a specialist dedicated to treating this disease. Request a second opinion at Karmanos here.