Breast cancer survivor recalls journey to celebrate

A cancer survivor and her supporters celebrated many steps along the way, including the opportunity to walk in the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade.

Celebrating Oaks Day 2024 has taken on a new meaning for Rachel Trice, 34, of Madison, Indiana. Rachel will be among the 150 breast and ovarian cancer survivors to walk in the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade moments before the 150th running of the Longines Kentucky Oaks at historic Churchill Downs on Friday, May 3.

Rewind to spring 2022, Rachel felt a lump in her breast. She talked to her health care provider, and they recommended to take a wait-and-see approach, primarily because she was so young and did not have a family history of breast cancer. As the months went by, the lump remained, so it was time to take action. By September, Rachel started the process of having a mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy and even an MRI — making sure her health care team had a good understanding of the tumor and could develop a treatment plan specifically tailored to her. The diagnosis was official: She had triple-positive breast cancer, and treatment would start right away.

Fortunately for Rachel, her care team was close to home. She consulted with Matthew Golden, M.D., general surgeon at Norton King’s Daughters’ Health, about the lumpectomy. Together with Ajay K. Kandra, M.D., medical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute – Madison, the team established a treatment plan for Rachel. She would start with chemotherapy in an effort to shrink the tumor and it did.

“My scans showed the tumor shrinking after the first dose of chemo,” Rachel said. “And by the sixth and final dose there had been such a radical response, the tumor was reduced to scar tissue.”

“This type of response is called complete pathological response, and can be seen in patients with HER2-positive breast cancers with the right combination of chemotherapy and targeted therapy” Dr. Kandra said. “Patients with this type of response typically have the highest cure rates.”

HER2 is a protein that makes cancer fast-growing but also more responsive to treatments that attack the protein.

The successful response to chemotherapy made the lumpectomy, the next step in Rachel’s treatment plan, somewhat easier. Dr. Golden was able to remove the scar tissue along with a sampling of lymph nodes that would be tested to see if the cancer had spread. It had not, and Rachel was ready for the next step in her care plan. She started radiation, which would be followed by hormone therapy. The extended plan is to continue with a total of five years of hormone-blocker, a pill she takes, while continuing to undergo scans looking for any traces of the cancer returning. Coupled with the other therapies for Rachel, Dr. Kandra feels this will give her the best chances of remaining cancer-free.

A celebration like no other

Rachel has a tribe of support all around her. Her large family includes three brothers and three sisters who stepped in to help her with chores, treatment and moral support. She also had the support of a best friend who “never stopped showing up,” according to Rachel. Taylor Cruz and Rachel have been friends for nine years. Taylor, a registered nurse, was with Rachel at many doctors’ appointments and chemo treatments.

“She helped me celebrate every step and every little victory,” Rachel said. “I asked her to walk with me in the parade. So I can’t wait to celebrate the Oaks Survivors Parade with Taylor.”

The two are looking forward to the Oaks Day festivities. They have selected outfits —including hats —and are looking forward to meeting other survivors and hearing their journey too.

But for all of Rachel’s tribe and support system, the celebration truly began in November 2023 when she completed her final round of active treatment. After 17 infusions, she was finally done and got to ring the bell, a rite of passage for patients completing their active cancer treatment journey.

“It was a scary journey, but I got to meet so many amazing people and do so many wonder things along the way,” Rachel said.

A journey that kept her close to home

For many people, comprehensive cancer care could mean having to drive hours to receive treatment. For Rachel, everything was right in her hometown.

“Rachel received the best level of care at Norton King’s Daughter’s Health, including cutting-edge radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy,” Dr. Kandra said. “Having those resources close by is important to the overall health and wellness of the patient. It improves tolerance for the treatment and ability to complete all the recommended treatments.”

Rachel felt a strong connection to so many of the people on her care team and remembers small gestures that really made an impact on her. For example, one time Parag R. Sevak, M.D., radiation oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute, stayed late at the clinic in Madison to make sure all of her questions were answered and she was comfortable after enduring a radiation treatment.

“It was that kind of attentiveness and compassion that helped carry me through this journey,” Rachel said.

Oaks Survivors Parade

This is the 16th year for the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade featuring survivors of breast and ovarian cancer. Survivors, including men, submit their names and are chosen at random to participate. The Norton Healthcare Foundation, along with Horses and Hope of the Kentucky Cancer Program, is a charitable sponsor of the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade. Churchill Downs Foundation donates funds to support Norton Cancer Institute through the Norton Healthcare Foundation.

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