Keri Frank-Fuentes and Rachael Emborg: Two breast cancer stories
This is a tale of two women. Each received a diagnosis of breast cancer with very different outcomes. Keri Frank-Fuentes and her cousin, Rachael, both shared a family history of breast cancer, though none of it first-degree. “There was a lot of it on both sides, including our grandmother,” says Keri.
Rachael, three years older than Keri, received the bad news in 2014 at age 45 after noticing a “rash and orange-peely” texture on one of her breasts. Her diagnosis was inflammatory invasive ductal carcinoma.
She and her husband lived in Murray, Utah, where
there was no apparent organization similar to Albie Aware. Because the family had inadequate health insurance, she delayed getting a mammogram.
Stage 4 breast cancer
Her care after the diagnosis was, as Keri puts it, “problematic.” The cancer was Stage 4, though she never told anyone that, and Rachael needed a modified radical mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.
On top of that, she developed diabetes during the ordeal. “No surprise,” says Keri, “diabetes runs in the family and she was overweight. Add steroids and chemo, and they will mess with blood sugar levels.”
“She was never counseled that, in addition to her other health problems, she would be dealing with the cancer for the rest of her life,” says Keri. “Her immune system was shot.”
Complications and a new lesion
“After a 4-year remission, Rachael was having difficulty breathing due to fluid between her lungs and the chest wall,” Keri explains. “While draining the fluid, doctors discovered that her cancer had spread to her lungs. She knew her days were numbered. Her goal was to get home. But because she had inadequate insurance, they would only give her home oxygen for five days.”
Keeping it to herself
“She didn’t share that she knew she was terminal,” adds Keri. She was sent to physical therapy, but was struggling and taken to a hospital emergency room. “That was a Saturday,” Keri says. “She died on Thursday. I asked Rachael’s husband to tell her that I loved her and would be a warrior for her, but I never got to talk to her again.”
Dying with money worries
“My cousin died worried that her husband was going to pay for this forever. Fortunately, a charity paid the $250,000 hospital fees, but my cousin died not knowing this. It remains to be seen whether her time in rehab will be covered by a charity.”
Keri and her husband live in Woodland. Her daughter plays volleyball at Woodland Christian High School, and her son attends CSU Chico. She was diagnosed in February, 2019, at age 46 – shortly before Rachael was re-diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Rachael passed away a month after Keri completed radiation.
“My husband and I don’t normally make health goals each year,” says Keri. “We avoid New Year’s resolutions, but I wanted to cross a mammogram off my list, so it was added to our annual goal and task list because I was overdue.”
Early detection and intervention
“My initial mammogram reading did not show cancer,” Keri says. “I received a letter that I needed to go in for a follow-up ultrasound for probable benign cysts. While there, we were discussing my family history of cancer, and the doctor seemed concerned, so he looked at my mammogram again and found something. Cysts obstruct visibility, and I had cysts. It was difficult to see the calcifications. If you have breast density like mine, you may need a breast MRI.”
A successful outcome
Comparing her experience with that of Rachael’s, Keri says, “I had excellent insurance, while Rachael did not. My surgery and radiation were completely covered other than small copays for office visits. And I paid a comparatively small fee for the MRIs. I was there from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. the day of the ultrasound that led to biopsies. The nurses and staff were teasing me about the attention I received from my doctor, saying, ‘You are
his project of the day.’” A biopsy found the cancer. It was Stage 0, ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning the cancer was not yet invasive. “We caught it early,” she says.
Spreading the word
After seeing Rachael struggle and contrasting that with her own experience, Keri says, “I used to be a quiet activist, but now I’m loud and I support the work of Albie Aware.” Her advice, based on experience, is, ”Get your mammograms regularly – don’t let them get overdue. And women with dense breasts should consider MRIs, especially if you share a family history like I do. Please, discuss it with your doctor.”
Good advice, Keri. We, at Albie Aware, offer our condolences to Keri on the loss of her cousin, Rachael.