A double mastectomy and breast reconstruction: Shae’s "Air Force Tough" story

Shae Skarbowski patient story

"I just made my appointment with Roswell Park and started there . . ."

Shae Peters-Skarbowski grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and considers herself to be pretty tough. She’s a registered nurse with five children and five advanced academic degrees who served 28 years in the Air Force – including active duty overseas in Philippines, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – before retiring in Buffalo to become the vice president of strategic services for a regional healthcare system.

“I just fell in love with the people and the community. There’s just so much to love about Buffalo,” she says of her adopted hometown since 2005.

Shae is definitively “Air Force tough.” (Thank you for your service, Shae!) But when she was diagnosed in 2019 with breast cancer, that personal grit faced a new challenge. Her breast cancer was identified as HER2 positive, an aggressive and difficult-to-treat subtype, and Shae already knew her family history is, in her own words, “profound.” Her mother died of breast cancer at age 46; two of her sisters and a niece are breast cancer survivors.

Shae Peters-Skarbowski after breast cancer surgery

“I knew that typically HER2 is not a diagnosis that people mess around with. Treatment is really aggressive,” Shae says. “When I received my diagnosis, I just made my appointment with Roswell and started there.”

Quick and connecting appointments

However, as a lifelong health professional, Shae also reached out to another healthcare system for a diagnosis and treatment options. “They said, ‘well, it’s the holidays and we won’t get to you until January,’” she recalls of that late 2019 experience. “Within two days, Roswell Park had everything lined up and this was during COVID. I was impressed. I received calls from the oncologist’s office, pre-surgical and surgical appointments, and an appointment with plastics for reconstruction.”

Her mammogram, imaging and other diagnostic appointments were all scheduled for the same day, in the same wing, which was different from many other hospitals that schedule tests independent of one another. “Roswell Park was comfortable. You could tell it is set up to specialize in breast cancer. They had everything ready and they read the results on the spot. I didn’t have to go home with any anxiety about anything.”

Catching a missed diagnosis

But after the initial evaluation, Shae’s team at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center wanted to do another MRI. They suspected a tumor in her right breast as well as the cancer initially diagnosed in the left, a conclusion the other facility had not reached and had denied a second MRI when she asked. At Roswell Park, the second MRI confirmed a second mass in the right breast; while the cancer in the left breast was HER2 positive, the cancer in the right breast was a different subtype, with estrogen and progesterone biomarkers.

“The tumor in the right breast was huge,” Shae says. “I thought, holy cow! Roswell Park saved my bacon more than once. I would not be on this side of the terra firma had it not been for Roswell Park.”

In addition to her strong faith, she credits Roswell Park breast surgeon Mariola Poss, MD, oncologist Saif Soniwala, MD, plastic surgeon Cemile Ozturk, MD, Hannah Fraser, PA and the nursing staff for managing her care before, during and after her 10-hour double mastectomy in January 2020.

“After they did the breast removal, they put in the tissue expanders right away,” says Shae. “What was very cool was that my care team let me decide how I wanted to look. I didn’t have to go from this person that was a size double F to being a ‘flatsy doll.’ I woke up and looked down and I had mounds there. For me it really helped because now I was the breast size I always wanted to be.”

Her full recovery took time, and she faced challenges from an allergic reaction, infection and painful, fluid-filled pockets called seromas that had to be drained manually. Because of the extent of her cancer, in March 2020 Shae began chemotherapy treatments that lasted for 16 months, until May 2021. But in June 2021 she and her husband Steve rang the Roswell Park Victory Bell together.

You have time for a second opinion

A second opinion at Roswell Park means a whole team of breast cancer experts review your case, your imaging, and any other tests you may have had to provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

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"Use Roswell Park's abundant resources"

The care she received here as a breast cancer patient has made Air Force tough Shae Peters-Skarbowski a consummate and committed champion of Roswell Park. “I’ve had people participate in the Ride for Roswell on my behalf, and I donate,” she explains. “I will be a part of any clinical trial I am eligible for. And I’ll do anything I can to help Roswell Park.”

She urges every person diagnosed with breast cancer to use the abundant resources available to them through Roswell Park.

“All of the stuff you knew about yourself before changes. It changes your family dynamics; it changes everything that you know and love. I know you’re scared, but connect yourself with a breast support group because there are so many things that happen on this journey that the health care professionals can’t tell you,” she advises.

“I got my wigs. I got my cancer cookbook. Take advantage of all those resources because there’s no one that knows these things more than Roswell Park.”

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.