Fighting Breast Cancer With Everything She’s Got

As Nicole Tracy nears the end of her breast cancer treatment, there’s one thing she wants others to know.

“Cancer is forever,” says the 27-year-old Cincinnati resident. “People think once your treatment is done you go back to normal, but that’s not the case.” Doctors’ appointments, maintenance medicines, and strength building become part of a cancer patient’s life, not to mention the lingering effects of chemo brain. “It’s a new normal, and you are not ever really the same.”

The good news is there is no evidence of disease in Nicole’s body now.

Diagnosed At Age 25

On a May morning in 2020, Nicole felt a lump on her nipple while in the shower. That day, her doctor recommended a mammogram, which Nicole did right away. Technicians also performed a breast ultrasound.

“They told me it wasn’t looking great and to come back the next day for a biopsy.”

All of this took place during tight COVID-19 restrictions, so Nicole was at the appointment alone, while her mom and her then-fiancé waited in the parking lot. “When someone mentioned cancer risk and radiation, I just blacked out,” Nicole says. “I didn’t hear anything after that. I went outside to my family and cried.”

The next week, Nicole got the news. It was cancer.

Nicole has no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and her genetic testing was negative for the BRCA gene mutation, which can increase cancer risk.

Creating a Treatment Plan

In June, Nicole met with Thomas Heck, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network ®-certified physician, to go over her treatment options. “The majority of patients with newly diagnosed breast cancers do not have a family history,” says Dr. Heck.

Nicole’s specific cancer is triple positive invasive ductal cancer. This means her cancer cells carry receptors for the estrogen and progesterone hormones and HER2, a growth protein on the outside of her breast cells.

The science behind Nicole’s cancer made her a good candidate to get chemotherapy before surgery. This provides a chance to see how the tumor responds to the chemo.

“In many cases, we do surgery first and then chemo, but by no means is that true for every patient,” Dr. Heck says. “We individualize the treatment for each patient.”

Dr. Heck and Nicole created a care plan for chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy, chemotherapy boosters, and radiation treatments. She chose a lumpectomy because her tumor was located just under the nipple, and her genetic testing was negative.

But First, a Wedding

Nicole and her fiancé, Jake Chapman, were scheduled to get married in March 2021. When she got her cancer diagnosis, they moved up the wedding date.

“I wanted to get married with hair and before I started chemo,” Nicole says. When Dr. Heck implanted her chemotherapy port, “he tried to make the scar less visible around the lines of my wedding dress. Everyone was so nice and helpful.”

The wedding was perfect, Nicole says.

Chemo, Surgery, Radiation, And Chemo Boosters

Nicole received six rounds of chemotherapy from July through October. She kept working even though she was tired and developed neuropathy in her feet. The severe pain sent Nicole to the emergency room. She used a wheelchair for a few weeks.

Nicole’s job gave her flexibility. She put her focus on staying well and getting rest. From the beginning, her mom, Diane Bishop, took on the role of researcher. Diane works nights as a respiratory therapist for Premier Health.

“She knew it would take me down a rabbit hole, so she just told me what I needed to know,” Nicole says.

The chemo did its job and shrank the tumor.

Nicole’s lumpectomy took place in December. Nicole says, “Dr. Heck did an amazing job. I am healed, and the scars are minimal and so clean you can barely see them.”

Overcoming Obstacles With a Positive Attitude

Because she had a lumpectomy, Nicole needed 30 rounds of radiation to destroy any remaining cancer cells. She stopped working during her daily radiation treatments. She also receives chemo boosters every three weeks. Right after she completed her chemo treatments, Nicole tested positive for COVID-19. Luckily, her symptoms were mild and felt like a cold.

“I chose to live and be happy and just try to make the best of the worst situation that has ever happened to me,” Nicole says. “You are either positive or you’re not. I try to laugh my way through it because cancer stinks, and everyone knows it stinks, but I’d rather not be mopey about it.”

Her positivity and willingness to fight goes a long way, says Dr. Heck. “Patients with a positive attitude tend to do better.”

Oncology nurse navigator Laura Reed, BSN, RN, CBCN, provided “super helpful” guidance at the beginning of her journey, Nicole says. The Pink Ribbon Girls offered peer support, delivered meals, and connected Nicole to a survivor with the same diagnosis at a similar age.

Getting Back To Life

Today Nicole feels better but still struggles with fatigue. She’s back to working from home. “It was time to go back to work and living life,” Nicole says.

But it takes time. She’s returning to nightly walks in her neighborhood. Her energy is returning, but her chemo boosters “knock me down every three weeks.”

Nicole’s message to other women is simple: Keep up with the self-checks, don’t put off getting checked out, and ask for help when you need it.

Getting your mammogram is your first important step for breast health and to fight breast cancer. Schedule your mammogram online or call (855) 887-7364(855) 887-7364 Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., or Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Our cancer team is here for you. Our cancer specialists have access to nationally recognized cancer care protocols and best practices, since Premier Health is a certified member of MD Anderson Cancer Network®, a program of MD Anderson Cancer Center. Our patients benefit from advanced local care backed by the world-renowned expertise of the nation’s leading cancer center. 

Call the Premier Health cancer hotline at (844) 316-HOPE(844) 316-4673 (4673), Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., to connect with a Premier Health cancer navigator.