Buoyed by strong support team, seamless care, teacher returns to classroom after breast cancer treatment
Exactly one year after being diagnosed with breast cancer, teacher Alison Berger is returning to the classroom, a “poster child” for how well a patient can recover with a strong support network both at home and at the hospital.
Alison discovered a two-centimeter lump in her right breast just months after turning 40, during a family vacation to Hilton Head, SC. As soon as she returned, she went for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound at University Hospitals that revealed clinical stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma with lymph node involvement. Initial breast imaging revealed a tumor that measured six centimeters.
This Medina County mother of four began an incredible journey with many moving pieces in the middle of a pandemic – and yet an upbeat attitude helped buoy her through the challenges.
“Everyone from my mammography techs all the way up to (breast surgical oncologist) Drs. Megan Miller and medical oncologist Alberto Montero have been pivotal people in my entire journey,” Alison said. “They are the positive lights.”
The breast center at UH Seidman Cancer Center helped coordinate all her imaging appointments, including an MRI, bone scan and CT scan of her chest, abdomen and pelvis. The coordination of all her treatment amazed her.
Alison recalls approaching her doctor “guns blazing” to have the cancer cut out before she began chemotherapy. But her medical oncologist, Alberto Montero, MD, Diana Hyland Chair for Breast Cancer, told her that by giving the chemotherapy first we could assess how well the cancer responds to the chemotherapy and potentially shrink the cancer in the lymph nodes.
“Because of the genomic assay that we performed on the tumor, we knew that it would be more sensitive to chemotherapy and by giving chemo first we could reduce the size of the tumor and decrease the number of affected lymph nodes, as well as increase the success of surgery,” said Dr. Montero, Director of the Breast Cancer Medical Oncology Program for UH Seidman Cancer Center. “Alison had a very nice response and when Dr. Miller operated, the tumor was much smaller than what was seen on initial imaging.”
For three months that fall, Alison underwent six rounds of neoadjuvant chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. The compassionate cancer team kept her calm and reassured. Dr. Montero called her personally the day after her first chemo treatment.
“Dr. Montero called me a poster child for all things chemo, because things went so well,” Alison said. “I’m bubbly and he’s very serious, but I could not have asked for a better medical oncologist. Throughout this whole process, I’ve never felt rushed, or that my person didn’t matter. I had a great relationship with my whole team.”
Celebrate every step
Alison found creative ways to celebrate milestones. Her mother, step-father and children in her close-knit Granger Township neighborhood dyed their hair fun colors and held a head-shaving party in support of her. A child in her community, Tristan, dedicated his 11th birthday party to her. And the football team of her son, Caleb, dedicated a game in her honor. The announcer shared her personal story and educated the audience on breast cancer statistics. The team then presented Alison with a football they autographed, and even included the signature of former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. Clad in pink socks and wristbands, the colors of breast cancer awareness, the team concluded with the cheer: “1-2-3…FAMILY!”
After chemotherapy concluded, Alison underwent a bilateral skin-sparing mastectomy and the removal of 14 lymph nodes with surgical oncologist Megan Miller, MD, and immediate breast reconstruction with a plastic surgeon. Surgery was followed by 25 radiation treatments with Janice Lyons, MD, and a group of radiation technicians that greeted her – as with every other step in her cancer journey – with hugs and smiles.
Finally, during the winter height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was Alison’s turn to ring the bell signifying the commencement of treatment. But visitor restrictions during the pandemic prevented friends and family from attending the traditional bell-ringing ceremony at UH Minoff Health Center in Orange. Instead, dozens of loved ones gathered in the parking lot to blare car horns and ring bells in celebration of her accomplishment. Her husband, Shane, who is a firefighter/paramedic in Parma, arranged a police and fire escort on the way home, and her son’s wrestling team were among the cheering section as she drove through town.
A silver lining in the pandemic
“Covid took away many things from people, but it allowed me to have a celebration like no other to mark the end of the first leg of my cancer journey!” said Alison. “We made the best of our situation, and I was truly blessed to have the love and support of family and friends. I can’t thank them, or my husband, Shane, enough!"
After a summer of camping, swimming and leaving cancer behind, Alison was excited to return to school in person. She teaches third grade at Big Creek Elementary School in the Berea City School District. She will continue to take hormone-blocking tamoxifen for the next six years for her HR positive/HER2 negative form of breast cancer. This drug attaches to hormone receptors in breast cancer cells and blocks cancer from accessing hormones needed to multiply and grow.
“Of course, you don’t want to be diagnosed with cancer,” Alison said. “But if you are, UH is 100 percent the place to be. I’m meant to be here.”