My Story: Breast Cancer Survivor Valerie Calhoun

October 17, 2016

Valerie Calhoun feels like she’s back.  After an exhausting battle with breast cancer, she has thrown her wigs to the back of her closet, she is active in her church again and she is scheduling ice cream dates with her granddaughter.  None of this would be possible, she says, without the breast cancer treatment she received at MedStar Southern Maryland and the special attention she received from breast surgeon Dr. Ekaterini V. Tsiapali.

It was during a yearly mammogram last July when Valerie found out she had a tumor.  After her mom’s three-time battle with breast cancer decades ago, she was scared.  Her primary care physician put Valerie in touch with Dr. Tsiapali, who biopsied the tumor.  The initial diagnosis was grim:  it was a malignant, aggressive form of cancer, in Stage 3.  A lumpectomy followed in September, when Dr. Tsiapali removed the tumor and four lymph nodes.

This understandably difficult time was made a little easier, says Valerie, because Dr. Tsiapali made sure she knew what was happening every step of the way.

“Her bedside manner is the greatest,” says Valerie, of Dr. Tsiapali.  “She takes time and explains everything.  She gave me so much information and she’s very truthful; this is what it is, these are your options.”

Chemo began last November.  Valerie experienced hair loss, along with a loss of energy and appetite.  Her husband Thomas stopped working to be there for her, and her church, Woodstream Church in Mitchellville, fervently prayed for her health.  Her sister took her wig shopping, her mother, the original cancer survivor of the family, prayed with her, and her children and grandchildren rallied around her.  When chemo treatments finished in February, which Valerie recalls as the toughest part of this battle, she began six weeks of radiation treatments. 

Now, she is cancer-free, and sees Dr. Tsiapali every six months.  The staff greets her warmly when she returns, happy to see her so healthy, and she is equally happy to see them, remembering every kindness, like her appointment around Mother’s Day, when they gave her a flower.

“I’m telling you, this journey has been awesome, because of the entire staff,” said Valerie.  “I’m just grateful.  I asked God to direct me to a doctor and a team that could take care of me and He did.  It’s such a blessing.”

Valerie’s story has a happy ending, like the majority of current breast cancer patients.  The diagnosis is no longer as scary as it was years ago, says Dr. Tsiapali, when treatments were, at times, overly aggressive when they didn’t need to be, and techniques had the potential to cause more problems.

“Today, we schedule needle biopsies, like we did with Valerie, instead of surgical procedures,” said Dr. Tsiapali.  “The needle biopsy is less invasive, so recovery is easier.  We also have made huge strides with techniques to save breasts and reshape them when tumors are removed.” 

Dr. Tsiapali is also able to refer patients to MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center’s genetic counselors, so breast cancer patients can undergo testing to see if they are carriers of cancer genes and determine whether patients who have breast tumors would benefit from chemotherapy, as Valerie did.

The trend, says Dr. Tsiapali, is to individualize treatment to each patient’s unique needs.  By taking this tailored approach, she has seen patients over the course of her career recover more quickly than patients did as recently as a decade ago.  Her reward for providing treatment, she says, is seeing patients like Valerie return to a happy life after a long, difficult journey through breast cancer treatments.

“Getting to know Valerie has been a pleasure,” says Dr. Tsiapali.  “She is easy-going and resilient and it has been wonderful to see her get back to being herself.”

To schedule a mammogram at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center, call 301-877-5607.

Valerie Calhoun and Dr. Katerina Tsiapali at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital on July 26, 2016.
Valerie Calhoun with breast surgeon Ekaterini Tsiapali, MD

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