First published in the Oct. 20 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
CONTENT PROVIDED BY ADVENTIST HEALTH GLENDALE
Vanessa Mendoza was just 28 when she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer — an especially aggressive and deadly type of the disease — and a positive BRCA mutation.
With a family history of breast cancer, she knew the risk signified by the lump she felt under her skin.
“One of my aunts died from breast cancer four years ago, and my sister recently passed away,” she said.
Mendoza also had more than her own fate to consider. She was 24 weeks pregnant. Her OB-GYN quickly referred her to a surgeon in the hope of removing the tumor before it metastasized.
“But I felt like he didn’t want to take the case,” Mendoza recalled. Calling the procedure “too risky,” he referred her to a second surgeon, who then recommended a third: Dr. Dennis Holmes, renowned breast surgeon and cancer researcher at Adventist Health Glendale. “He was the only one who seemed like he knew what he was doing,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza knew right away that she wanted Holmes and the dedicated staff at Adventist Health Glendale to be her caregivers. Following her faith, she recalls being reassured that God would lead her to the right place and the right people.
“I didn’t want to go to anyone else,” she said. “I wanted to stay with Dr. Holmes.”
But any possibility that she might lose her pregnancy still scared her. “I wanted my baby to be OK,” Mendoza said. Holmes and his colleagues immediately took all measures to ensure the baby’s safety and the mother’s recovery.
“Breast cancer during pregnancy is a relatively uncommon event,” Holmes noted. “Having an expert team that knows how to manage and coordinate care so that everything can be accomplished without unnecessary delay is crucial to getting the patient and the baby through the experience with the least harm.”
Thirty-three weeks and six days into her pregnancy, Mendoza gave birth to a healthy daughter. Two weeks later, she started chemotherapy, followed by surgery. Because of the dangerous characteristics of triple negative breast cancer, chemotherapy and surgery are currently the only treatment options.
“Knowing you’re going to have your breasts removed at this age — it was hard,” Mendoza admits. But the careful hands of Holmes and Adventist Health Glendale plastic surgeon Dr. Peter Ashjian ensured the best possible outcome for Mendoza’s surgery.
The new Sam and Grace Carvajal Comprehensive Breast Center at Adventist Health Glendale, slated to open early next year, will also offer genetic testing and counseling — something that Mendoza knows will be a huge advantage that will bring hope and new treatment advances to other women with breast cancer.
With her life back on track, Mendoza plans to go back to school to become a nurse and help care for others. “I feel that if I went through all of this, I can go through anything,” she said.