Angela Broderick navigates the unknowns of facing breast cancer

Angela Broderick

When Angela Broderick was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer, she was fearful. But after taking some time to process her feelings, the 45-year-old Friday Harbor, Washington, resident went into “action mode.”

“What do I need to know and do? What might happen? How will I deal with work and parenting? These were the questions that went through my head,” says Angela. She dove into research, because “it was harder to deal with the unknown than even getting a diagnosis.”

When she saw an article in The Journal of the San Juan Islands, which featured Tina Christian Lenson, a breast cancer survivor who received treatment at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center – Proton Therapy, Angela reached out to the facility to see if she could connect with Tina.

“Talking to Tina was so helpful,” says Angela. “At the time, I felt that proton therapy could be a good treatment option, and Tina’s experience really reinforced that.”

Because of Fred Hutch’s expertise and specialized care, Angela had already scheduled an appointment at Fred Hutch prior to talking to Tina and had been seen by Janice Kim, MD, one of the proton facility’s breast cancer radiation oncologists.

“Multiple people had shared positive experiences at Fred Hutch with me. I also wanted a team who specialized in breast cancer. It all led to Fred Hutch, and when I met my care team, I immediately felt like they had my back,” explains Angela.

She and Kim discussed the best treatment options. After chemotherapy and surgery, proton radiation therapy was the ideal option because Angela was fairly young, and her cancer was in the left breast and involved multiple lymph nodes.

Unlike X-rays, proton therapy is a form of particle radiation that can be targeted precisely to spare healthy tissue such as the heart and lungs from unnecessary radiation. This minimizes the risk of heart or lung complications later in life.

Angela decided to do genetic testing at Fred Hutch and was found to have the PALB2 gene mutation, the “little cousin of BRCA,” as she puts it. A mutation on the PALB2 gene, which normally helps prevent cancer, drastically increases a person’s risk of breast cancer. Because of this, and a history of breast cancer in her family, Angela opted for a bilateral mastectomy.

For five weeks, Angela stayed in Seattle for proton therapy, which is administered daily five days a week. A friend offered her a place to stay, which helped financially. She took a partial leave from her job as a climate and sustainability coordinator and worked remotely when she could. Although she had been very anxious about the separation from family, much of her experience turned out to be “surprisingly wonderful.” She had close friends take turns staying with her and had time to connect with each of them.

Angela did have some side effects, such as radiation burns to her skin, which were at their worst after treatment ended but eventually faded. And, she had more energy than she thought she would and enjoyed walks in the city almost every day.

“The experience at the proton facility itself was great. There was a high level of care, it was patient-centered, a nurturing environment,” says Angela.

She is now taking oral chemotherapy and endocrine therapy. She feels like the current treatment phase is one of the hardest because of the intense side effects and symptoms of early menopause.

“Everybody processes cancer differently,” she says. “For me, the most important things were facing the unknown, but also letting go and allowing things to happen. I advocated for myself and for what I needed and wanted, which was having good communication and a trusting relationship with my physicians and being able to voice my concerns.”

Angela acknowledges how deeply challenging cancer is and reflects on the gratitude she now feels for everyday things. Cancer affected her sense of what is important. First and foremost, she’s grateful for the deep relationships that have carried her through so much. She is grateful that she has a job where she can make a positive impact. And she is grateful that she gets to live in a beautiful place with a warm, supportive community.

“What has become crystal clear,” she says, “is the incredible power of love and connection to hold us and heal us.”

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