Breast cancer treatment conquers patient’s worst fears

Tanya O'Brien

Tanya O’Brien celebrates five years cancer free

Tanya O’Brien has a baby photo of her Aunt Elizabeth holding her. She thinks of this photo as two numbers – one and seven. Her aunt was number one; the first woman in her family diagnosed with breast cancer. O’Brien is the seventh.

Since the photo was taken in 1970, one cousin died, two more had lumps, one other had a preventative mastectomy, and two aunts have undergone treatment. Tanya had four mammograms and as many ultrasounds to monitor the lumps in her breasts that proved benign. But the fear of breast cancer hung over her life.

“My fear could stop me in my tracks and ruin a day in a second. Pink ribbons used to make me cringe,” said the 47-year-old elementary school teacher. “Fear robbed me of years of life.”

In 2013, Tanya’s worst fears were confirmed. A radiologist noticed a new line of calcifications and ordered a biopsy. On March 5, 2013, Tanya was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says, over the course of the next 16 months, the team of doctors and nursing staff at The Ottawa Hospital Breast Health Centre became household names and redefined the meaning of heroes. They addressed her fears and concerns, and were genuinely interested in her well-being every step of the process. 

“My care team at The Ottawa Hospital was exceptional in guiding me through and out of the darkest time of my life,” said Tanya.

She underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction in the same surgery. The surgeons promised that she would wake up and look like herself. And she did. With the exception of two small lines, she said she looked exactly as she did before. Except that she could look at herself with confidence knowing that she was well.

Chemotherapy treatments followed surgery, and on August 1, 2014, O’Brien rang the bell after her last chemo treatment.  

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“Surviving cancer changes your very essence. You see life differently. Continually grateful, you are more mindful about paying it forward and making your days count. I no longer worry about wrinkles and getting old or what colour my hair is,” said Tanya more than five years after her diagnosis. 

Since the Breast Health Centre opened at The Ottawa Hospital in 1997, clinic visits increased 62 percent. The needs of thousands of women in the region were larger than the centre could provide. Thanks to the generosity of our community that raised $14 million, the Rose Ages Breast Health Centre opened at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital on September 20, 2018. This new state-of-the-art Centre offers comprehensive expertise in breast imaging, diagnosis, risk assessment, surgical planning, and psychosocial support. As well, it has some of the best surgeons, oncologists and health care staff committed to women’s health.

“I am not naïve. I know not all stories get the happy ending,” said Tanya. “But we are all buoyed by possibility. We all need hope. We all want a cure. I know there is incredible research taking place every day in at The Ottawa Hospital.”

Until that cure is found, the most incredibly dedicated and skilled staff, using the latest technologies, will support women with breast cancer at the brand new Rose Ages Breast Health Centre. They are equipped to offer the highest quality of care to every new patient that steps foot through its doors.

“Today, my aunt might still have had a fighting chance,” said Tanya at the opening of the Rose Ages Breast Health Centre.

We feel she would too. The Ottawa Hospital strives to offer the best treatment and care for breast health for patients, like Tanya O’Brien, who come to us every day.

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