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Florida resident back in Indiana for breast cancer care

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Florida resident back in Indiana for breast cancer care

Karen Andrei and her husband Ron retired to Florida but they recently moved back to Indiana where she can be close to doctors who are treating her for breast cancer.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes

Karen Andrei knows what it’s like to drive a distance to a top-notch healthcare facility. She and her husband, Ron spend much of their time on mission work in the Dominican Republic. One of their biggest projects has been building a medical clinic in Bajos de Haina.

Residents of the economically depressed community are 45 minutes away from the nearest hospital. When Karen Andrei was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 26, she had a primal mastectomy with lymph node removal and learned that surgery would be followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

“We live two hours from the nearest cancer center in Florida. I was born and raised here and knew the reputation of IU Health so this is where I chose to come for my treatment,” said Karen. At IU Health she is under the care of surgeon Dr. Gary Dunnington, radiation oncologist Dr. Ryan Rhome, and hematologist/oncologist Dr. Tarah Ballinger.

Andrei had just gotten a routine mammogram in June. The spot – a size of a BB - escaped detection but shortly after the screening, she was called back for a recheck. There was a “suspicious spot” detected.

“I had the same thing happen last year so I thought I’d just wait on a recheck. I didn’t really think much of it,” said Andrei. But when she was back in Indiana in July she had a second mammogram, ultra sound and biopsy. Within two days she was notified that breast cancer had been detected.

Because her sister also had breast cancer, Andrei opted to have the BRCA gene test – a blood test that determines if she has changes in her DNA that increase the risk of breast cancer. The test came back negative. Her diagnosis is HER2-positive meaning her breast cancer is the type in which the breast cancer cells test positive for a protein receptor called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. About one in five breast cancers are HER2-positive.

“We’re not unique but this is unique to us. You never know what people are going through until you’re going through it. We are taking it day by day and we’re glad we have a great support system,” said Ron Andrei. The couple has been married for 15 years and together they have four adult children and one grandson.

The diagnosis has not only changed their address; it’s changed their focus.

Last year they were in the Dominican Republic at least half a dozen times delivering food, clothing, and medical supplies. Working with their church in Key West, Glad Tidings Tabernacle their goal is to help underserved youth - especially young women – learn to live a healthy lifestyle. The United Nations has determined Haina has one of the highest levels of lead contamination in the world and its population carries indications of lead poisoning. It is considered to have one of the highest pollution levels in the world.

“I’ve always worked with the young women on self-care,” said Andrei. “They bathe in the same water that they do their laundry and cooking in. It’s hard to change habits. Now when I look at practicing good health, I want to talk to them about mammograms and try to find a way to help them with early detection.”

The Andreis are also helping the community work toward becoming self-sustaining by introducing a pilot program through Project Ruth. Residents make paracord bracelets and key chains that are then sold to fund missions. Since Karen’s diagnosis, they are designing pink bracelets for breast cancer awareness.

For now, their mission work is on hold as they move forward in the treatment process.

“I have faith. You can have faith in the "God" but you also need faith in the doctors,” said Karen. “I feel confident that I’m getting the care that I need. Here I know I won’t be treated as a number but as a person. I want to be thought of as a whole person not just a person defined by my cancer.”