Joanne Hayes shares her personal story of facing and beating breast cancer.
Simply Buckhead publisher Joanne Hayes was sitting in bed on a Sunday morning last November, drinking coffee and watching the news with her husband, when she received a notification: The results of her breast biopsy had been posted in her MyChart portal. She had the procedure after a routine mammogram six months earlier showed a small spot that led to an ultrasound and a follow-up appointment. The spot demonstrated some growth in the updated mammogram, and the radiologist immediately sent Hayes for the biopsy. While she had experienced five brushes with breast aspirations and having fibrocystic breast lumps removed in her 20s and 30s, she did not expect to read what she did that day.
“The biopsy came back as invasive ductal carcinoma. It was shocking,” she says. “MyChart can be a blessing and a curse because sometimes you get your results faster than even your doctor does. But I knew what I was reading. Within two hours, I had reached out to our friends at CURE Childhood Cancer to get a recommendation. I was referred to Emory Winship Cancer Institute. On Monday morning, I called for an appointment. Eight days later, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. That’s the point when your journey begins.”
For Hayes, that journey included more in-depth imaging that ultimately revealed an additional concerning spot near the original one, as well as two spots in her other breast. Those results led to both ultrasound-guided and MRI-guided biopsies to determine the severity of the cancer, as well as the options for treatment. Fortunately, because of the location of the cancer, Hayes was a candidate for a new state of the art surgery: a nipple sparing mastectomy.
“A nipple sparing mastectomy is usually done through a lower incision hidden along the inframammary fold (lower breast crease) or around the nipple with a plan for immediate reconstruction. No skin is removed in an effort to preserve the natural breast shape and allows patients to keep their own nipple and areola,” says Dr. Angela Cheng, who specializes in breast reconstruction surgery at Winship Cancer Institute. While a key benefit of the surgery is a cosmetic one compared to a traditional mastectomy, this type of surgery provides equivalent cancer control to a standard one. What’s more, a small percentage of patients may be able to retain sensation in the nipple area after surgery. Dr. Lauren M. Postlewait, breast surgeon at Winship, adds, “The option should be discussed with both the plastic and breast surgeon to determine what is best for each individual patient.”
Four months after her initial diagnosis, Hayes underwent a double nipple sparing partial mastectomy. She was grateful to be treated at Emory Winship Cancer Institute, a National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center. She received treatment at the Clifton campus, where all of the services she required—from visits with her surgeons and oncologist to advanced imaging and the surgery itself—were located. “Having breast cancer is stressful every single day,” she says. “Here, everything is in the same building. It minimizes the stress, which is a big deal.”
After her first surgery, Hayes learned that she would have to have a double mastectomy, removing the additional breast tissue to ensure no growth beyond the original margins. The second surgery, along with Oncotype DX testing that predicts how likely breast cancer is to return, let Hayes avoid additional treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, due to her extremely low chance of recurrence.
“After my second surgery in June, I was declared cancer free,” says Hayes, who underwent a fat grafting surgery in September to reduce some skin rippling. And while her surgeries and subsequent recovery were long and grueling, she now sees her experience as an opportunity to encourage other women to take control of their health and get screened regularly.
“When I went for that mammogram in May of 2022, I didn’t feel anything,” Hayes says. “The cancer was buried so deep. There wasn’t a physical lump. I never felt unwell. There was no indication that anything was wrong. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Early detection is absolutely key. Get tested. Never push aside any of the doctor appointments that you should be doing like your annual gynecological appointment or your mammogram.”
Hayes offers advice for navigating the unexpected journey. “You have to be your own advocate. Do your research about what is happening to you. Ask a million questions. Every person’s journey will be different. How you choose to deal with the journey is also a big part of how you come out of it. I ended up being the one in nine who has to go through it. But cancer doesn’t define who I am.”
COMPREHENSIVE CARE AT EMORY WINSHIP CANCER INSTITUTE
Winship Cancer Institute is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which boasts eight clinical sites across metro Atlanta. The newest location opened in Midtown in May 2023, offering pioneering treatments and new standards of care for cancers of the lung, blood, head, neck and breast, as well as genitourinary and gastrointestinal cancers.
The Winship Midtown location uniquely joins outpatient and inpatient cancer care into care communities. Each of the five care communities consists of two floors designated for treating a specific type of cancer, with one floor for inpatient care and one floor for outpatient care; this model is the first of its kind. And across the communities, patients have access to world-class care that includes advanced imaging, personalized treatment plans and much more. Winship is leading the way in cancer care with innovative approaches and unique services.
EMORY WINSHIP CANCER INSTITUTE
PHOTO: Erik Meadows
15 Minutes With columnist at Simply Buckhead. Freelance feature writer, children’s book author and President of Green Meadows Communications, LLC.