In the Steinbeck household, the youngest addition to the family has the nickname “Angel Baby,” and it’s not just because of her angelic face. Little Brooklyn earned the title because symptoms that arose in her mom during pregnancy led to a breast-cancer diagnosis, most likely saving the young mother’s life.
Holly Steinbeck heard the news this year, two days before her 30th birthday. Although it is rare, young women do get breast cancer, presenting them with life-altering decisions at a time when their focus should be on family and diapers, not chemo and mastectomies. In response, Sky Ridge Medical Center has launched a program focused on these young patients’ unique needs, offering resources and guidance to help them through their challenging time.
“If I hadn’t had her, I might not have caught it,” Steinbeck says of the decision to bring Brooklyn, 1, into the Highlands Ranch family, which includes Dad (Mark), and big brothers Justin, 7, and Ty, 4. Hormonal changes from the pregnancy could have sparked the symptoms – breast pain and a swollen gland – leading to discovery of the cancer. Because the disease was still at Stage II, Steinbeck had more treatment options, such as whether to undergo a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, an overwhelming decision at any age.
“But Dr. Moore, whom I fell in love with, gave me all of the stats and all of the scenarios,” she says of Dr. Joyce Moore, surgeon and co-chair of the Sky Ridge Breast Center. “She was really, really open about everything. And then she left it up to me.”
Even with the cancer contained on one side, Steinbeck chose a double mastectomy, deciding the risk of recurrence, especially since she was so young, was too high. “They’re not worth that much to me to keep. I went the most aggressive route I could on all of my options, including having chemotherapy and radiation,” says Steinbeck, who was wracked by fear of leaving her young family behind, but worked to banish the bad thoughts and be positive: “I just had to keep telling myself I couldn’t go there.”
Strong family support, including from her husband (her high-school sweetheart), and guiding support from her doctors and Sky Ridge Breast Navigator Christina Mullen, helped Steinbeck stay positive and make educated decisions at a time when fear and emotions can muddle thoughts. For instance, all Sky Ridge patients are urged to consider breast-reconstruction options early, as some treatments can prevent implants as an option later. “I know a woman whose doctor never told her that, and when she decided she wanted implants afterward, it was too late,” Steinbeck says.
Mullen helped steer her through, sending her to partnering providers, such as surgeons at Park Meadows Cosmetic Surgery, who provide a unique and sought-after breast-reconstruction surgery called DIEP Flap. “He (Dr. Jeremy Williams) sat down with me for almost three hours and explained everything,” says Steinbeck, who was initially leaning toward DIEP Flap, during which excess tissue from a woman’s abdomen is used to rebuild her breasts. “But I don’t have enough fat,” says the petite and “always-athletic” Steinbeck, who will have implants instead. “Hey, I should get some perks out of the deal.”
Attitude and exercise have gone a long way in helping Steinbeck cope with treatment. She tried to include cardio and weight-lifting throughout, even forcing a little walk on bad chemo days, which she said wasn’t as bad as she’d thought. “I’d get a little nauseous, but I did acupuncture, and it really helped.”
For any questions she had, she found support and answers on topics such as: experimental hair-preserving therapy; treatment-induced menopause; cancer-fighting nutrition; and physical therapy to prevent arm swelling after lymph-node removal (lymphedema). “Physical therapy was great. She (Christianne Misetich-Hippe, her Sky Ridge therapist) is amazing. She’s known as the lymphedema whisperer,” Steinbeck says.
Parenting issues for young patients also can bring unique challenges, which Sky Ridge helps address through support and social services with its partner Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers. “Fear of the unknown is the worst,” Steinbeck says. “And with kids, that really tears you up inside. You need to be there to raise them.”
Being honest with the boys, but in a positive, non-scary fashion, was important for the Steinbecks. “We told them right away. I said I was going to need lots of hugs,” Steinbeck says, adding that she and her husband promised a big party when treatment was done. The boys provided poignant moments: “Mommy, are you going to die?” and light moments, such as when her 4-year-old trotted into the hospital room right after his mom’s double mastectomy (only the first part of the long treatment) and asked: “Is it party time yet?” And, as most parents probably know, just watching your baby proves therapeutic, which was particularly true for Steinbeck with little Brooklyn. “It’s like Dr. Moore said: She’s my angel baby.”