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updated: 7/16/2014 4:55 PM

Naperville teacher's battle with cancer can be example to others

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  • Based on her own extensive experience being treated for and attempting to prevent cancer, Sheila Tucker strongly urges people to learn their family history, make time to see their doctor, stay on schedule with mammograms and other screenings, and take advantage of genetic testing.

    Based on her own extensive experience being treated for and attempting to prevent cancer, Sheila Tucker strongly urges people to learn their family history, make time to see their doctor, stay on schedule with mammograms and other screenings, and take advantage of genetic testing.
    Courtesy of Edward Hospital

By Kathy Lessor
Edward Hospital

Sheila Tucker, a 58-year-old teacher at Longwood Elementary School in Naperville, has been keeping cancer at bay for eight years.

And she's winning her campaign, describing herself as feeling "healthy as a horse."

But she's had to deal with some serious cancer risk factors and a couple of cancer-related scares along the way.

It all started in 2006 when Tucker was diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer. Dr. Alexander Hantel, co-director of Edward Cancer Center and a medical oncologist with the Edward Hematology/Oncology Group, proposed treatment that included a lumpectomy; six weeks of radiation therapy overseen by Dr. Vasudha Lingareddy, a radiation oncologist with Fox Valley Radiation Oncology; and five years on the drug Tamoxifen.

At the time, Tucker, who lives in Aurora, didn't know much about her family health history so she thought she could put thoughts of cancer behind her.

But in 2010, Tucker learned her 35-year-old niece had breast cancer and had tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation. Tucker was tested on Dr. Hantel's recommendation and learned she also has this dangerous mutation.

"With BRCA2 there is a 70 percent to 90 percent risk of breast cancer and a 20 percent to 40 percent risk of ovarian cancer," Dr. Hantel said. "There's also a risk of bile duct and pancreatic cancer."

Tucker also discovered cancer was more prevalent in her family than she had thought. In addition to her father, who died of pancreatic cancer at 59, she had several other relatives who had cancer. This included an aunt, now deceased, who had had pancreatic, breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.

Armed with information about her options, Tucker began proactively chipping away at her risk. First, she agreed with Dr. Hantel's recommendation that she have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

"There is no screening for ovarian cancer," says Dr. Hantel. "This surgery lowers risk of ovarian cancer to 5 percent."

He referred her to Dr. Aarathi Cholkeri-Singh, a gynecologist with The Advanced Gynecologic Surgery Institute, who performed the surgery to remove Tucker's ovaries and fallopian tubes in December 2010.

"The earlier you identify risk factors or early cancers, the more choices you have in controlling your health and your life," says Dr. Cholkeri-Singh.

Dr. Hantel and Tucker also discussed the option of a preventive mastectomy, but she was not ready to take that step.

"At that time, I preferred to stay on top of the breast cancer risk by undergoing either a mammogram or an MRI of the breasts every six months," says Tucker.

To address her increased risk of pancreatic cancer she also would have an endoscopic ultrasound every six months.

In early 2014, one of these ultrasounds led to a follow-up MRI that identified a potentially dangerous precancerous polyp on the gallbladder, which was removed by Dr. George Salti, a surgical oncologist, co-medical director of the Edward Cancer Center and medical director of the Edward Hospital Surgical Oncology Program.

Tucker is now ready to take another important step to avoid cancer. She has scheduled a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery for August 2014.

"With a bilateral mastectomy, the risk of breast cancer risk drops to 3 percent to 4 percent," Dr. Hantel says. "As science advances, we're getting better at helping patients get the right information at the right time. And Sheila was willing to act on the interventions that could help her."

"It is important for a patient to find the right match in a physician -- and not just in terms of their clinical skills," says Dr. Cholkeri-Singh.

"He or she should also be comfortable communicating openly with them. And it helps to have a team of doctors and other professionals at one hospital, like our multidisciplinary cancer team at Edward. This means it's easier for the doctors to consult with each other and coordinate care. It saves steps for the patient and helps avoid delays."

"I would encourage everyone to learn your family history, make time to see your doctor and stay on schedule with mammograms and other screenings," Tucker says.

At every step in her journey, Tucker has had a supportive partner in her husband, Rick, whom she describes as being witty and having a strong faith.

"I learned about my diagnosis shortly after we met and he stuck it out, holding my hand throughout," she says.

Sheila and Rick have a full summer planned, including her 40th high school reunion, an Alaskan cruise and a trip to Maryland to baby-sit their first grandchild.

"I'm hoping being vocal about my issues will encourage others to ask questions and get tested when they otherwise may not have (done so)," Tucker says. "Even those who are fortunate enough to not have a BRCA mutation can benefit from being proactive.

"I'm very thankful to the doctors and others involved in my care. And I'm grateful that I had the information needed to prolong my life."

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