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Mary House

Mary_House

Breast Cancer Patient Finds Hope and Healing, After Stage 3 Diagnosis

At the age of 37, Mary House was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. She credits her care team’s empathy, kindness, and commitment for helping to guide her through her harrowing journey.

“I’m sure it was a God thing, but when I felt the lump in my breast, I knew something was wrong,” said House, a single mother of two boys.“ But I didn’t expect it to be so serious.”

When House underwent a biopsy, she learned that 12 out of the 13 lymph nodes her provider had removed were already cancerous. She was just shy of Stage 4 cancer.

“There was no history of breast cancer – or cancer at all in my family,” said House. “My Pet scan was clear, and my genetic testing came back clear.”

With so many lymph nodes already compromised, House’s care team knew she would need the most aggressive treatment possible. She was immediately scheduled for a lumpectomy, but soon after the procedure, she learned it had not been successful in removing all the positive cancer cells.

That’s when House sought care from CHI St. Joseph Health Cancer Center, and Medical Oncologist Dr. Erin Fleener. “She is one of the most caring doctors I’ve ever met,” said House. “She spends as much time as she needs to with each of her patients. She cares about every concern, no matter how small, answers all of your questions and makes you feel like you are her only patient.”

One thing House said she learned through her experience is that providers like Dr. Fleener are careful not to overwhelm patients with too much information. At a time when House said she felt emotionally and physically exhausted, she appreciated this approach.

Not long after diagnosis, House learned her breast cancer journey was far from over. She would soon undergo chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation therapy, and breast reconstruction.

Because of the aggressiveness of her treatment, House said she struggled with ordinary tasks like dropping off and picking up her children from school. Still, throughout her treatment, she committed herself to doing this for her sons, who were six and eight years old at the time.

Radiation therapy also proved challenging, as she had to raise her arms above her head for treatment following her double mastectomy.

When radiation started, “Dr. {Scott} Goble and his team were kind and sympathetic to my unique situation,” she said. “Fresh out of chemo and a double mastectomy, I was physically beat down and emotionally unstable. They were very patient with me. I cried at every appointment I went to. Which was not unusual, because I cried at every chemo treatment I did too. I’m sure I wasn’t the best patient.

They were kind and helped me through the process in a very caring way.”

Because House is at high risk for lymphedema – a potentially serious condition that can cause localized swelling after patients have lymph nodes removed – she attended a free class at CHI St. Joseph Health. The program provided her with essential knowledge of the risks, with resources to the equipment, sleeves, and information she needed to prevent development of lymphedema.

She also did physical therapy to increase her range of motion following her double mastectomy.

After being cancer free for six months, House is in the reconstructive phase of her breast cancer journey. In 2020, she underwent phase one of her deep flap reconstruction — a procedure that uses stomach tissue to build breasts — at an Austin hospital. And, she is continuing to heal.

“My mom came down from Amarillo and stayed with my boys and me for three whole months,” said House. “The recovery from this mega surgery has been extremely hard.”

One of the hardest parts of her continued treatment has been her medically-induced menopause. “It makes me feel like I’m 90 years old,” she said. “Similar to chemotherapy, the whole process wears on your body and emotionally beats you down.” She mentioned how difficult it has been, as a single young adult, to have a doctor decide you’re done having children.

Being the sole owner and operator of her small business -a record store- House knew she would be unable to continue her routine of working eight to ten hours a day, at least for a period of time. As she continues to slowly rebuild her strength, she also pops into the store from time to time.

House says in the wake of her journey, her children have taken on a considerable amount of responsibility. “They do their laundry and help with the dishes and getting dinner ready,” she said. “They’ve learned to help me much more around the house and with our animals; I imagine more so than most kids their age do.”

One thing House’s children often say of their mother’s diagnosis and treatment is that they were scared, but they were strong and prayed every day that God would heal their mom. House said they all dyed their hair pink in solidarity, and they had a shave party at her house when she started chemo.

As House looks toward the future, she says she is grateful for the team who cared for and treated her. “Had it not been for them and for my treatments at St. Joseph, I would have died,” she said. “Everybody involved in this – from my Dr’s PA, who ordered my mammogram, Dr. Fleener, who guided me through the entire process, Dr. Goble, who performed the radiation, my surgical team in Austin and the Beyond Boobs support group, who helped keep me sane — together, they saved my life.”