Alexis’s story: A breast cancer story of hope

October 31, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

Alexis Barbour wants women to make sure they are regularly conducting breast self-exams and getting routine mammograms — especially if they are high risk.

Barbour, 41, of Downers Grove, is the Vice President of Clinical Operations at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute and Skokie Hospital, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health. She began getting mammograms at the age of 30 because her mom’s breast cancer diagnosis at 44 meant Barbour was at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

In June 2022, Barbour developed mastitis, a condition that typically occurs during breastfeeding. She thought she had possibly contracted the infection during a vacation and took a course of antibiotics. "Now I understand that was likely the start of my symptoms," she says.

Then in April 2023, she began experiencing a brownish bloody discharge from her right nipple. She had been doing regular breast self-examinations lying down, but one day she decided to conduct the exam while leaning forward — and felt a lump.

"I got in right away for a diagnostic mammogram and a breast ultrasound,” says Barbour. “Through the ultrasound, Dr. Spear identified a couple of spots that she thought needed to be biopsied."

"Alexis had dense breast tissue, which affects 40% of women," says Georgia Spear, MD, Division Chief of the Department of Breast Imaging at NorthShore. "It is very difficult to find cancer in women with dense breast tissue because on a mammogram, both breast tissue and cancer appear white."

Dense breast tissue also raises a woman's risk for developing cancer. Seven years ago, NorthShore was one of the first health systems to implement ABUS*, an automated 3D breast ultrasound, which is used in addition to a mammogram to more effectively identify early breast cancer.

Barbour's biopsy initially showed an atypical ductal hyperplasia, a lesion that is considered a high-risk precursor to breast cancer. Barbour then requested a breast MRI, which showed enhancements all over her breast tissue with a high likelihood of being malignant.

After the MRI, Katherine Kopkash, MD, Director of Oncoplastic Breast Surgery at NorthShore, ordered additional biopsies of those enhancements, which showed that Barbour indeed had early stage breast cancer. Dr. Kopkash began to speak with Barbour about her surgical options.  With the extensive involvement of cancer in the right breast and her family history of breast cancer, a double mastectomy was discussed.

"She explained that one of the most regretted surgeries that women have is a single mastectomy," says Barbour. "I would require frequent monitoring on my left breast due to a high risk of cancer, and cosmetically, one breast would look different from the other."

Barbour's surgery was scheduled for May 2023. "I was amazed that it was an outpatient surgery," she says. Akhil Seth, MD, Director of Reconstructive Microsurgery for the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at NorthShore, also began Barbour's breast reconstruction process during that surgery.

"Alexis had a complicated cancer, and I created our surgical plan to optimize both her oncologic and cosmetic outcomes," says Dr. Kopkash. "Working as a team with Dr. Seth, we were able to achieve our goals utilizing a nipple-sparing mastectomy and immediate reconstruction."

Barbour was able to go home that night and begin her 6-week recovery. After her final reconstruction procedure in July 2023, she recovered for another month.

"It's hard to believe that around Memorial Day I started this surgical journey and by Labor Day, I was back to work and fully reconstructed," she says.

Barbour is now cancer-free.

"We have a really good program here at North Shore," she says. "I felt like they were listening to me and supporting me both physically and emotionally throughout the journey."

Barbour says that she wishes that she had known more about high-risk breast screening and encourages women to find out if they are at high risk and if so, immediately find a high-risk program. While breast cancer is a frightening diagnosis, Barbour says she hopes her story can be a source of encouragement.

"This is a story of hope," says Barbour. "There can be a good outcome to a breast cancer diagnosis."

*Medicare patients should check their individual coverage regarding ABUS screening.

Breast cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. The cancer experts at Edward-Elmhurst Health will partner with you every step of the way. Learn more.

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