Patient advocate becomes a two-time breast cancer survivor | Ascension

Patient advocate becomes a two-time breast cancer survivor

A well-known patient advocate in Pensacola, FL, overcame breast cancer twice with early detection and treatment at Ascension Sacred Heart.

“I feel that I need to tell my story, be vulnerable, let down my guard and help save lives,” said Sandra of Pensacola. She has overcome breast cancer not once, but twice. In both cases, early detection was key to her survival.

Sandra, president of a consulting company providing training and education to address community wellness, believes her experience with breast cancer can benefit other women facing a similar health crisis. As a working mother of two, with many responsibilities, Sandra knows women tend to put others first. Her urgent plea is for women to “be vigilant about those annual screenings and tests!”

Early in her breast cancer journey, Sandra functioned in a “fog” of fear before having a clear vision of her destiny – to help other women through a message of early detection and support. A spiritual person, Sandra also put herself in God’s hands to fight that fear. “Like the ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem, I felt like He carried me through it all,” she said.

At 47, Sandra was a busy Chief Advocacy Officer with Community Health Northwest Florida, when a routine mammogram revealed a Stage 1 tumor in one of her breasts in late 2018. Under the care of oncologist Dr. Yazan Al-Sayed at Ascension Sacred Heart Cancer Center in Pensacola, her case was seen by the Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola’s Tumor Review Board, which brings together multiple specialists to review cancer cases. A lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and almost a year of intravenous hormonal therapy were recommended. 

Dr. Mary J. Benson performed a lumpectomy and double mastectomy surgery. Four years later, another Stage 1 tumor was discovered in her other breast. It was smaller and slower-growing than the first, more aggressive tumor. Both tumors were determined to be hormone-driven cancers.

Sandra decided to undergo a double mastectomy. Stunned by this second diagnosis and baffled that her cancer had returned, she received another recommendation from the Tumor Review Board – removing her ovaries. Dr. Angela Ziebarth and Christina Duckworth, PA, who specialize in gynecological cancer, performed her full reproductive surgery.

Sandra's medical treatment included 12 rounds of chemotherapy at the Outpatient Infusion Center at Ascension Sacred Heart Cancer Center, and 19 rounds of radiation therapy at the Cancer Center’s radiation department. After a double mastectomy, she was sent back to surgery for an infection that developed while she was recovering from tissue expander surgery. One month later, Sandra underwent a breast reconstruction procedure. 

She credits Jessica Hornedo, RN, one of her patient navigators at Ascension Sacred Heart, who provided amazing support through it all. “She showed up at my appointments and surgery, provided resources and called me to see how I was doing,” Sandra said. “And Jillian, my chemotherapy nurse, I will never forget her either.”

Before both of her diagnoses, Sandra never had any pain or felt any lumps. Sandra’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer a year before her diagnosis. Both Sandra and her sister had genetic testing that came back negative for family history. However, on her father’s side of the family, there had been women who had breast cancer.

During her journey, “my daily walk consisted of prayer, Scripture reading and relying on a village of people supporting me through it,” said Sandra, who also did yoga with two friends to help reduce stress. She is grateful that her daughter was able to serve as her primary caregiver along with support from home-health resources.

Sandra’s attitude played a vital role in her journey. Equipped with a great cancer team, knowledge and a wonderful support system, she proclaimed: “I’m gonna beat you, cancer. You are not going to beat me!”