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Like a grade school kid, 33-year-old Samantha plops down on the top of the playground equipment. She sticks her feet and her arms forward as she prepares for the great, six-foot descent. “Catch mommy,” she calls out to 5-year-old Wes. With her daughters flanking her sides, Samantha leans forward and slides into Wes’ open arms.
It’s a happy July morning for mom and her three children as they play at RCA Community Park on Bloomington’s southwest side. All the joyful sounds echoing across the open field belie the paralyzing fear Samantha Huffman endured just three years earlier.
On one ordinary day in early 2015, Samantha noticed a “weird lump” in her breast and some spotting. She went for a scan at her doctor’s suggestion, thinking it was just dense breast tissue. “Nobody was worried,” she said. Samantha was just 30; she was fit and had breast-fed her youngest child just months before.
But unclear results came back from tests that day and doctors feared the worst – advanced, inflammatory cancer, a strain she was unlikely to conquer. From the doctor’s office, she called her father, her mother was soon on the way and Samantha’s husband, Logan, was by her side. But all the support in the world could not bring her solace.
“I spent a whole week thinking I was going to die. It’s a week I never want to relive.” But Samantha is a self-proclaimed “look-on-the-bright-side kind of person.” As she continually wrestled with the idea of her mortality and the impending outcome, she was always thinking about her family. “At least it wasn’t my kids … or Logan. I would rather it be me.”
While cancer had a grip on Samantha, within a short time, the pendulum on the prognosis began to swing. Melissa Watters, MD, an OB/GYN with IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians, sent her to Oncologist Jacqueline Joyce, MD, and Fadi Haddad, MD, who performed a skin test. “He was a breath of fresh air,” Samantha says. She met with Dr. Joyce a few days later for test results.
“I had ‘regular’ breast cancer,” Samantha says with a smile on her face. “The doctor said she considered that to be great news, because of the medicine available to treat it.” Although four tumors were in Samantha’s right breast, the outlook suddenly appeared much less grim.
The weeks and months that followed in Samantha’s journey were scripted by doctors, navigators, nurses and physical therapists within IU Health facilities in the South Central Region. Six rounds of chemotherapy came first. Treatment started in March and included Herceptin – a drug to target HER2 cancers like Samantha’s.
“I took treatments on Mondays. I had two children at home with me during the day. On chemo week, family members would come to help out. And my 6-year-old took it upon herself to make breakfast. Never mind that it was chocolate cupcakes,” Samantha says and grins.
The chemotherapy made her sick. “I had every side effect in the book. The only thing that tasted good was wonton soup broth – something salty.”
The wrath of the treatment continued to take its toll for about the first week after each infusion. “After the third treatment, my hemoglobin counts would not stay up. I could tell when it was happening because my lips would get pale.” And she often had to get IV fluids to maintain hydration and her strength.
Whatever her needs, she says the IU Health Infusion Center nurses were there to provide. “The nurses are just the best. Every time I went in they wanted to hear what was going on … and they could fix it. And my kids could have found this to be a very scary experience, but the nurses took care of them.”
Although Samantha’s chemotherapy road was rocky, it came to a close on June 19. What it had accomplished was a massive success. One tumor was gone and the others drastically reduced. The next step: mastectomy.
“Because I am young, I have a long time to live. I wanted to be as aggressive as possible. I wanted a double mastectomy at that time. Instead doctors encouraged a right mastectomy with a full lymph node dissection.” The risk of lymphedema from node removal scared her. But IU Health Physical Therapist Jan Newell entered the journey and calmed her fears.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Samantha says, as she came to understand the condition. “I go to the lymphedema clinic whenever I need to and I have a compression sleeve when I fly. In three years, I’ve never had any big issues. If I’m recommending a procedure to someone, I would say take the precaution and take out the nodes; that’s definitely the way to go. Lymphedema is something you can control.”
The right side mastectomy was completed on July 20. “It was a piece of cake. I stayed home one day and the next day I was off to Target.”
The pathology report that came back a few days later was even sweeter. It showed no signs of cancer. It was completely gone.
This energetic mom quickly resumed her babysitting role – something this stay-at-home mom with a double major in psychology and criminology from Indiana University, truly loves.
“I am a mom and wife. What we have as a family just works. We are pretty close. Being a mom shapes me. I am with my kids for better or worse. And my husband is wonderful; he was right by my side through it all. And Baxter was so supportive, giving him flexible time off.”
In October of 2015, Samantha continued her treatment with radiation, and the following January, for truly precautionary reasons, she underwent the left side mastectomy. She has opted to date, for no reconstruction surgery.
The years following the initial diagnosis have been harder on Samantha mentally than physically. She says PTSD symptoms have plagued her, despite the fact she had the BRCA Test – which determined she does not have a genetic predisposition for cancer.
“For the longest time I’ve been afraid to be excited. I always feel like something will take my happiness away,” she says. But the care she received and continues to receive at checkups brings her confidence.
“It was wonderful to be here in Bloomington. My Nurse Navigator Terri Acton is so good at what she does. And treatment was five minutes away from my house. For instance, I had terrible mouth sores, but help was so near. I could get right in. Dr. Joyce was amazing.”
Carpe diem rules the Huffman household these days. “I have perspective now,” Samantha says, adding “this changed me for the better. There are no more bad days in my life.”
She is also grateful for gifts of kindness. “We had a neighbor who took off from work one day to care for my kids. People from Baxter were so wonderful. One woman even left boxes of toys for our children on the doorstep. “We look at our savings differently, too. Why save so much? You should live. We vacation. We have put in a pool. We have friends over,” she says.
Samantha cherishes moments, as she distances herself from that terrible turn at age 30. In August, she walked her youngest into his kindergarten classroom. At night she tucks the kids into bed and enjoys the comforts of home with her husband.
“I read that ‘late night pizza with your husband is life.’ In general, I just don’t turn down life anymore.”
Featured IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians providers seeing patients for oncology-related issues:
Melissa Watters, MDBloomington: 812.334.3955
Jacqueline Joyce, MDSeeing patients in two locations:Martinsville: 765.349.6533Bloomington: 812.3311.3405