A yearly mammogram led to early diagnosis of an aggressive cancer type
“It was the year that I turned 50 and I was living my best life! I had gotten an annual mammogram every year since I turned 40 and I was feeling great,” Sharon Sanford, 54, recalls. Sharon’s cancer journey started with a routine breast screening mammogram in October 2017.
Sharon is a wife, mother, and an Associate Athletic Director at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB). She assists with UB’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, serves on numerous campus committees, is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and an active member of her local church. She has always been active and relatively healthy and was feeling at the top of her game before receiving her mammogram results.
“When the doctor called to give me the diagnosis, I was in shock. I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer and I didn’t understand the terminology,” Sharon says. “I was diagnosed with stage 2B triple-negative breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes.”
“My next steps were the most difficult,” Sharon admits. “I had to tell my husband, sons, family and close friends about my diagnosis. I chose to share my news because I wanted and needed as many people praying for me as possible.”
Coming up with a treatment plan
Two weeks later, two different surgical oncologists gave Sharon the same recommendations for her treatment: chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, then radiation. “I had to choose which surgeon I wanted to entrust my treatment with, and I chose Dr. Mariola Poss, who is affiliated with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center,” Sharon says. “The caring and compassionate way that Dr. Poss explained my diagnosis and options made me feel confident with the process. She has a calming and comforting way about her and was patient to answer my questions. I didn’t feel rushed, dismissed or talked down to. She took time with me and my husband. She maintained eye contact with me like she wanted to understand me. I felt an instant connection with her,” Sharon said.
“With her diagnosis of triple-negative cancer with lymph node involvement to start, she met with the medical oncologist prior to deciding on a treatment plan, because in this type of situation we do typically recommend chemotherapy before any surgery," Dr. Poss explains, underscoring the importance of multidisciplinary care for Sharon. "After her chemotherapy was completed, she underwent reimaging of her breasts to evaluate response and then plan the most appropriate surgery.”
For Sharon, the appropriate surgery was a lumpectomy, where the surgeon removes the cancerous breast tissue along with a small amount of healthy tissue surrounding it to ensure all cancerous tissue is removed. This procedure preserves the breast itself as well as the sensation in the breast.
“My treatment lasted 16 months. My chemotherapy treatments lasted four months, from December through March, and my lumpectomy was in May. Radiation lasted eight weeks, and I had to take an oral chemotherapy pill for six months,” Sharon says.
The Roswell Park difference
“When I first visited Roswell, I felt compassionate care from every individual that I encountered. It began with the live music being played in the lobby to the cafeteria workers and extended to the nurses and doctors,” Sharon recalls. “The experience was comforting. When I had my last radiation treatment, the nurses gathered with me to ring the bell celebrating my last treatment. The memories are lasting.”
“Dr. Poss was my surgeon, Dr. Saif Soniwala was my medical oncologist, and Dr. Simon Fung-Kee-Fung was my radiation oncologist. My team of doctors provided excellent care and a wealth of knowledge and support during my healing journey. While I didn’t know much about breast cancer or any cancer for that matter, I did know that Roswell Park had a great reputation for cancer research, and it was right here in Buffalo. Being connected to Roswell was important to me,” Sharon says.
“I always look forward to seeing Sharon in my clinic,” Dr. Poss says. “With everything that she has been through, she always has a smile and a very positive outlook. She has taken her experience and formed an organization to help other women. She is very inspiring.”
Creating a legacy
Sharon kept a positive outlook through her treatment, relying heavily on her husband, sons, and prayer group to hold her up. She also found a way to leave a lasting legacy and help bring awareness to other women in her community.
“On the one-year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis, I was inspired to start a nonprofit organization called Sadie Strong. Sadie Strong is a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit breast cancer support organization that promotes the early detection of breast cancer and inspires healthy lifestyles to women, more specifically African American women and women of color, in the Buffalo Niagara region,” Sharon says. Sharon’s family and close friends call her Sadie, so the name seemed fitting.
“We offer a variety of programs and services that provide awareness, support and empowerment to women affected by breast cancer,” Sharon says. “We also recognize and honor breast cancer survivors and share inspirational stories and messages of faith and hope. I turned my pain into purpose with hopes of creating a world where women take control of their health.”
In addition to inspiring her community, Sharon has a revitalized commitment to her own health and wellness. Sharon makes sure to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, and eats more balanced meals that include fruits and vegetables. “I ran my first 5K and have taken up cycling. I have a new lease on life and I am leading by example, striving to be the best version of myself to inspire others.”
What Sharon wants you to know
“I was feeling fine when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Had I not gotten my annual mammogram, the breast cancer could have possibly spread. Early detection is key. Invest in yourself and in your health,” Sharon says.
“Yearly mammograms are so important because they allow us to catch cancers early, when they are more treatable and curable,” Dr. Poss says. “When cancers are found at later stages, unfortunately, the prognosis is not as good. Making sure you are keeping up with your yearly mammogram and clinical breast exam is important. Although this will not prevent breast cancer, it can help find the disease earlier.”
One in eight women in the United States get breast cancer every year. If you are a woman of color, the risk of receiving a worse diagnosis is far greater. “As African American women, I want to encourage you to invest in your health and wellness,” Sharon says. “Health is wealth, and we need to invest in ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Get your annual mammogram and encourage other women to do the same.”
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Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.