After beating breast cancer, Arbutus woman reaches out to help others

Amy McCoy of Arbutus describes the last two years as a roller coaster ride.

A year and a half ago, she lost her father to cancer. Four months later, her mother was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.

Because her mother's cancer was caught early, the treatment plan was short and to the point, she said.

In April 2015, McCoy, then 36, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While at a pre-op visit for a hysterectomy, her gynecologist found a lump in her breast. It was something she knew she had since she was 18, but they thought it was always a cyst.

Her gynecologist suggested further examination. After she had a mammogram and a sonogram, her radiologist told her before she left the appointment that she had breast cancer.

Her biggest concern was how to break the news to her three children, ages 16, 14 and 8.

"I was terrified," she said. "That was my biggest challenge. That was my biggest fear."

She was treated at Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, near Catonsville.

In October 2015, doctors declared McCoy's cancer in remission, but she simply called that "the end of my yucky chemo."

She continued Herceptin treatment, a drug used separate from chemotherapy to prevent the spread of cancer cells, until May.

"I consider myself in remission in May because I didn't have to come back anymore."

During hard times, McCoy said she received support from family, friends, co-workers and the community. One friend donated 18 inches of her hair to make a wig for her. A benefit was thrown in her honor at Arbutus Town Hall, which raised $10,000 toward her care.

While she was at the hospital, she noticed other patients in a similar situation, but without as much support or resources.

She decided to step up and help.

McCoy has acted as a cancer "sponsor" of sorts for three other women who were fighting cancer and she wants to start a sponsorship program through the hospital.

In July, McCoy teamed up with Steve Armenis, owner of Shannon's Pub & Grille in Baltimore Highlands to organize a benefit to raise money for the fight against all cancers, raising $7,000 for Saint Agnes patients.

The money helps patients with costs that insurance won't cover, such as groceries, laundry service or utility bills at home.

Bills can be daunting.

In a study of 14,643 breast cancer patients from 2008 to 2012 by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, out-of-pocket costs varied, depending on treatment. The median insurance payments for patients who did not receive trastuzumab, the drug sold under the brand name Herceptin, was $82,260, while out-of-pocket costs were $2,727. The figures for those who did were $160,590 and $3,381, respectively.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, aside from some kinds of skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Throughout October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, efforts are made to promote breast cancer awareness, education and treatment.

Friday is National Mammography Day, when women are urged to get the screening, or make an appointment for a checkup.

In Catonsville, Janet Hall, a Baltimore breast cancer survivor, is organizing her eighth annual wine and spa breast cancer fundraiser at the Catonsville Club House Oct. 22. Money raised there will benefit the Natalie Williams Breast Care Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes early detection and healthy breast care among women of color.

According to the American Cancer Society, researchers are focusing on several areas to improve the quality of life for breast cancer patients and survivors, such as causes, reducing risk, managing DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ, the most common non-invasive breast cancer — testing and treatment.

The Sister Study, a study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, follows 50,000 women with sisters with breast cancer for 10 years and collects information on genes, lifestyle, and environmental factors that may cause breast cancer.

The research taking place includes looking for medicines that might help lower breast cancer risk, especially in women who are at high risk. The American Cancer Society says it could take some time before meaningful results on the medicines are available, as it takes many years to conduct research.

Screening methods being studied include a scintimammography, in which a tracer — a slightly radioactive drug — is injected into a vein and attaches to breast cancer cells. The tracer attaches to cancerous cells and is detected by a special camera. While some doctors believe it could help, at this time it should not replace a screening mammogram.

Treatment methods being researched include targeted therapy drugs — newer drugs that focus on genetic changes in cancer cells that help the cells grow or spread.

When McCoy first arrived at Saint Agnes as a patient, she felt relieved. She was greeted by a team consisting of an oncologist, nurse manager, social worker and a financial counselor.

"The care I received was amazing," she said. "Saint Agnes always made me feel like I was their only patient."

McCoy's social worker, Jennifer Broaddus, is the program manager for psychosocial oncology at Saint Agnes Cancer Institute. She said staff supports patients by stabilizing them from an emotional point of view.

The institute takes a holistic approach to their patients, Broaddus said. It also focuses on the family, including kid and teen programs for patients who have children.

"I think over the years we have found, as a support services team, that patients uniquely journey through cancer, based on where they find comfort and coping strategies," she said.

The approach has been the same since the Saint Agnes Comprehensive Breast Center started in 1994, according to Diana Griffiths, its medical director from the beginning.

"I think in terms of treatment, if we're all on board and if we can coordinate and streamline treatment, it helps minimize mistakes and allay fears in women so they can focus on getting healthy," she said.

McCoy is working with Broaddus to start a one-on-one support group in which cancer survivors can reach out to patients.

"I'm not sure what's next," she said. "I'm up for whatever, but I'm excited. At the end of the day, I want to help other people out."

According to the American Cancer Society, researchers are focusing on several areas to improve the quality of life for breast cancer patients and survivors, such as causes, reducing risk, managing DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ, the most common non-invasive breast cancer — testing and treatment.

The Sister Study, a study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, follows 50,000 women with sisters with breast cancer for 10 years and collects information on genes, lifestyle, and environmental factors that may cause breast cancer.

The research taking place includes looking for medicines that might help lower breast cancer risk, especially in women who are at high risk. The American Cancer Society says it could take some time before meaningful results on the medicines are available, as it takes many years to conduct.

Testing methods being studied include a scintimammography, in which a tracer — a slightly radioactive drug — is injected into a vein and attaches to breast cancer cells. The tracer attaches to cancerous cells and is detected by a special camera. While some doctors believe it could help, at this time it should not replace a screening mammogram.

Treatment methods being researched include targeted therapy drugs — newer drugs that focus on gene changes in cancer cells that help the cells grow or spread.

In 2013, 230,815 women and 2,109 men in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer, while 40,860 women and 464 men died from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Maryland, the incidence rate is 134.1 out of every 100,000 women, 11th highest out of 49 states and the District of Columbia — Nevada data was not available — while the death rate was 21.4 per every 100,000 women, 15th highest out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. It's a stable trend, according to the CDC.

Baltimore County had the sixth highest age-adjusted incidence rate cases of breast cancer per 100,000 women from 2009-13 with 134.5 — an average of 698 per year during that time. The highest rates are in Calvert, Worcester, Harford, Talbot and Carroll counties. It's a stable trend, according to the CDC.

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