Lying on her stomach with her breasts lined up in little holes and her arms spread out like Superman, Amy Hamilton had a thought.
“At that moment, I had a big revelation: nobody knows what kind of car I came here in; nobody knows what kind of house I came from this morning; nobody knows what kind of jewelry I wear, or anything,” she said.
“When it comes down to it, we’re all the same – we work and stress so much for material things. We’re always striving to have more and more and more. Being naked in an MRI machine puts things into perspective.”
Hamilton’s journey with breast cancer began in early summer 2017. At 49 years old, she felt a large lump in her breast and scheduled a mammogram at the Wilbur & Mary Jean Cohen Women’s Center at Atrium Medical Center.
She had planned for a busy Friday: get the mammogram at 9 a.m., a work appointment at noon, and then prepare to host her daughter’s graduation party the next day. But that mammogram immediately led to an ultrasound, and Hamilton “just knew.”
“I called my husband, fell apart, and then I was like, ‘I’ve got to get it together,’” she said. “So I went into Gordon Food Service, got all my supplies on my list, and then came home and we set up for the graduation party.”
They kept the news to themselves that weekend, not wanting to alarm anyone until after Hamilton had a biopsy.
“I look back at those pictures and I’m thinking, ‘How did I do that?’” Amy said. “That Monday I had my biopsy, and Thursday it was positive. It was a whirlwind.”
Hamilton chose to go through treatment at Atrium Medical Center under the care of Nkeiruka Okoye, MD. Dr. Okoye is a medical oncologist at Atrium and is also a certified physician with MD Anderson Cancer Network, a program of MD Anderson Cancer Center.
She said many people asked her why she didn’t seek treatment in a bigger city. For her, it was important to have a care team close to home so she could be with her family.
“I had confidence, and that was what I prayed for the whole time – I need wisdom and peace in whatever decision we make – and I just had that with them,” she said.
On initial evaluation, Dr. Okoye worried that Hamilton’s treatment plan might require a mastectomy; however, because of Hamilton’s final tumor characteristics, “we were able to thankfully shrink the tumor to the barest minimum, so she had a lumpectomy instead,” she said. “I was doing everything in my power to avoid chemo because I wanted my hair,” said Hamilton, who has always been known for her “big, curly, ’80s hair.”
But the day before Hamilton’s initially scheduled mastectomy, she received a call from Dr. Okoye. Her other breast biopsy test results had come back. She would have to undergo chemotherapy no matter what, prior to any planned surgery.
Now, one of Hamilton’s favorite lessons is that “you can do life without hair.”
“Earrings are important – I used to never wear them because you could never see them, but now I’m like it is all about the earrings,” she said.
Thanks to Premier Health’s affiliation with MD Anderson Cancer Network, Dr. Okoye discussed Hamilton’s case and long-term care with some of the nation’s leading experts in cancer treatment. MD Anderson is the top-ranked cancer center in the country, and one of the original three comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Act.
“It’s really impressive to know that you can review a case with a colleague at MD Anderson Cancer Center, review available research data objectively, and get recommendations from a renowned colleague,” said Dr. Okoye. “I don’t know that there’s any way to quantify the benefit of knowing that you can do that on the phone.”
Hamilton also remained strong in her faith throughout her journey with cancer. She wrote positive, faith-based messages on her chemo bags; leaned on friends and family; dove into Bible scriptures; and journaled her thoughts with her dog, Elvis, dutifully by her side.
“When you are faced with something that you have absolutely no control over — none — it really makes you learn to put your faith in God,” she said. “Sometimes I was just mad … you know, after all I’ve done and all I’ve been through and everybody I’ve taken care of, why can’t I just have a break?
“But I went from ‘Why me?’ to ‘Thank you.’”
Dr. Okoye believes that Hamilton’s positivity throughout treatment helped her tolerate treatment better.
“Amy was able to integrate some of her holistic beliefs and practices into her treatment plan in a supportive fashion,” she said. “We would actively discuss these measures as we went along in her treatment course, including measures that have been supported by research, to complement her cancer treatment.”
In recovery, Hamilton is learning that it’s OK to not be busy, and it’s OK to tell people no.
“I’m thankful now that it happened because it has really changed my perspective to not sweat the small stuff — the stuff we get so stressed out about that really doesn’t matter; to let go of things we have no control over and enjoy each day,” she said.
“I don’t want this to define me — I’m not going to have the pink ribbon on my license plate — but I don’t want to forget what I’ve been through, and what I’ve learned.”
Premier Health is a certified member of MD Anderson Cancer Network, a program of MD Anderson Cancer Center. To learn more about this affiliation and local cancer services, visit premierhealth.com/cancer.