Before she turned 65, Peggy Hager retired after 35 years of teaching in the Coatesville Area School District. She wanted to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with her husband, three grown children and nine grandchildren. Another serious motivator: her older sister, Betsy Adams, who’d passed away from thymus cancer at age 67. She also had several friends who battled breast cancer, one who died.
Even so, Hager wasn’t worried. “With my philosophy of eating well, drinking 96 ounces of water a day, staying lean and exercising regularly, I feel like I’m going to live to 105,” she often told her husband.
In January 2021, the Wayne native went for a routine mammogram and was told more images were needed. Then came a discussion with a radiologist, followed by a biopsy. The head-spinning ordeal led to a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer in her ducts (ductal carcinoma in situ), a non-invasive form that was caught early and hadn’t broken through to her lymph nodes. Hager was referred to Dr. Lina Sizer, an oncologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital’s breast surgical center, as well as Lisa Schlosman, one of the practice’s nurse navigators. Later, plastic surgeon Dr. Laura Gowen joined her medical team. Hager underwent a mastectomy, followed by implants.
With Breast Cancer Awareness Month upon us, now is the perfect time to tell Hager’s story in hopes that other women will be prompted follow through with their mammograms, screenings and other appointments. “Once I got my breast cancer diagnosis, it felt like the world was coming to an end,” recalls Hager. “But I realized how lucky I was that I didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy, and I knew immediately that I was in great hands.”
Despite superior health and no family history of breast cancer, Hager now knows that her diagnosis is not rare. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s the second most common form in American women, followed only by skin cancer. In the U.S., the risk of a woman developing breast cancer is about 13 percent—a one in eight chance. Recent estimates reveal that about 281,550 new cases of the invasive form will be diagnosed in women, along with around 49,290 new cases of DCIS—Hager’s form. Some 43,600 women will die from breast cancer in 2021.
Hager’s prognosis was bolstered by a stellar medical team and strong emotional support from family members, friends and neighbors. “We don’t watch medical shows, because we prefer to stay away from blood and guts,” says Hagar. “So, although my husband is the most wonderful guy, I thought there was no way he’d clean my drains. But he proved me wrong. He came with me to every appointment and cleaned my drains twice a day.”
Hager’s husband also made her a shower dress out of a white plastic bag, with medical tape around the neck. “It was the funniest thing you ever saw, but it worked,” she says.
March-May 2020, Main Line Health put a pause on screening mammograms due to COVID-19. As a result, some patients didn’t come in even if they were experiencing symptoms. Sizer says we won’t know for a few of years how the pandemic impacted breast cancer care and diagnosis. But patients at her Bryn Mawr office have shown an increase in anxiety during their care and treatment. “Women tend to put families, jobs and other priorities before ourselves,” says Sizer. “Don’t wait for a breast cancer diagnosis to take that step.”
The American Society of Breast Surgeons recommends that women begin annual mammograms at the age of 40. “That’s where we catch all these early-stage breast cancers and can really prolong women’s lives,” Sizer says. “Screening mammography has been crucial in helping women stay alive.”
Laura Bruce has been working with cancer patients for 13 years, with the past three focused on breast care. “The best part of my work is knowing that we can take what’s an extremely stressful and anxiety-provoking experience and support patients in getting the treatment they need,” says the nurse navigator.
Hager also took advantage of acupuncture, nutritional counseling and other services from Sue Weldon’s Unite for Her. Weldon started the West Chester-based nonprofit organization when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 17 years ago at age 39. “I attended an inspiring yoga event and immediately connected with a woman who was younger than me with no hair, yellowish skin and hollow eyes,” Weldon remembers. “I told her about all the self-care tools I used—nutrition, yoga and acupuncture—and how it could help with pain, depression and hot flashes from forced menopause,” Weldon recalls. “She immediately started to cry and told me she could never afford it.”
Unite for Her offers integrative care through a wellness passport and individualized packages designed by medical and wellness professionals that are delivered via Hercarebox.org. Items include cookbooks, healing tea, calendula salve for chapped skin and radiation burns, bath and beauty products, and books and other educational materials. Women also have access to $2,000 worth of services like meditation, massage and yoga.
When COVID-19 put a temporary halt on in-person treatment, Unite for Her branched out on a national scale. It now has clients in 37 states. “Anxiety and depression are normal outcomes when someone is diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Weldon. “It’s important to seek the support you need to get your emotional and physical wellbeing restored … a sense of calm, healing and balance at a time when you need it the most.”
Dr. Robin Ciocca always looks forward to the time when cancer is a minor a topic of discussion at follow-up visits. “We’re catching up on their jobs, their families or where they’re going on vacation,” says Ciocca, a surgeon and surgical oncologist at Main Line Health Center. “It’s gratifying for all of us when they get to the other side of things—which is often hard to imagine at the beginning of their journey. Every woman with breast cancer has a life that must go on as she deals with her cancer diagnosis and treatment.”
Since her treatment and recovery, Hager is back to playing pickle ball and tennis, and riding bikes with her husband. “Don’t skip your mammograms,” she says. “Get every screening you can, no matter what your cancer diagnosis. The people beating it are those who are finding it early.”