Understanding Breast Cancer: An Ever-Changing Journey

Sanford Health's treatments & research to beat the disease

This week, we’re partnering with the Edith Sanford Breast Center to raise awareness of the importance of screenings for early detection of breast cancer.  One woman took it upon herself to be proactive in her fight.

“I don’t know if you want to call it women’s intuition but I knew something was going on wrong with my body.  And when you get that feeling you need to act on it,” says Joni Gabriel.

Joni Gabriel, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer

A lump in Joni’s right breast had gotten bigger.  So, the 48-year-old called her doctor ahead of her yearly mammogram.  In January, she found out she had Stage II breast cancer.

“Oh I was horrified, I was very scared, seeing what cancer does to a person’s body, witnessing it firsthand with my mother,” Joni explains.

Two years ago, her mom, Mary Jane, passed away at the age of 73 from ovarian cancer.  Mary Jane received treatments at Sanford, that’s what led Joni to do the same.  Now, every two weeks she travels five hours from Parmelee, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation to the Edith Sanford Breast Center in Sioux Falls.

“The whole staff, they make me feel comfortable,” Joni says.

Joni is one of about 300 people Sanford will treat for breast cancer this year.  Their patients are mostly women, in fact, one in eight women in South Dakota will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and about one in a thousand men.  Doctors say each journey is different.

“We kind of talk about four pillars of breast cancer care.  We talk about surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and then hormonal-based treatments,” says Sanford Health Medical Oncologist Dr. Keely Hack.

Joni had a lumpectomy and is now undergoing chemotherapy until July.  She may start radiation after that.  These types of care are constantly improving.

“A change that’s happened over the last several years is that for some women, we’re able to shorten the course of radiation that they receive where they can get three and a half weeks of radiation instead of six weeks of radiation.  So, for people who are traveling long distances, or even people who are local, to not have that inconvenience and the symptoms related to radiation for as long,” Dr. Hack says.

Sanford also participates in clinical trials and conducts research.  The goal is to find better treatments so more people survive breast cancer and can keep the disease from coming back.

“We have a trial of looking at weight loss and how that might decrease the rate of breast cancer recurrence.  We have a study looking at aspirin; to see if adding aspirin therapy, after the definitive treatment for breast cancer, if that lowers the risk of recurrence,” says Dr. Hack.

Joni is working to become cancer free for good, keeping the memory of her mom in her heart and her biggest motivators in mind.

“My grandchildren.  So, I’ve just gotta make myself better, for myself, to take care of myself and my body and so I can travel and see them.”

Doctors say there are ways to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer: limiting alcohol, not smoking, plus eating healthy and exercising.

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Joni Gabriel, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer