A positive attitude and a giving heart are the keys to beating breast cancer for Daniel Island woman
It’s a toss-up which is brighter – the hot pink pullover Joannah Sampson of Daniel Island proudly wears to honor breast cancer awareness month or her sunny personality. Over the past five years, it hasn’t always been easy for Sampson to remain positive, but it’s always been a priority.
“The physical toll was big,” said Sampson. “The emotional toll could have been big, but I wouldn’t let it.”
Five years ago, Sampson was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was, as she described it, a relatively easy fight. Doctors found a large tumor, removed it and that was it. No chemotherapy. No radiation. No immunotherapy. Just a simple surgery and a plan to follow up with scans of her abdomen and lungs on a regular basis. Those scans went off as planned for the first few rounds and then COVID-19 hit and Sampson had to postpone one of her appointments. When she finally made it in for the scans she assumed, as usual, that everything would be fine.
“And then the phone rang, and it was someone from Hollings who said, ‘We saw something – some abnormality in your right breast, and we really think you should follow up with this,’” said Sampson. “And I was like, ‘Oh no, not again.’”
That something turned out to be triple negative breast cancer, in the form of a small tumor tucked away in her ducts. She never felt a lump, never had pain and doctors weren’t even sure it would have been detected in a routine mammogram.
“I had a 3D mammogram. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting a 3D mammogram,” said Sampson. “They never would have found this. They never would have seen it.”
Triple negative breast cancer refers to the fact that the cells test negative on all three breast cancer tests – they don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors and don’t make any or much of a protein called HER2. It also tends to grow and spread faster.
“It’s a little more aggressive. It’s a little crazier, which fits my personality perfectly,” said Sampson with a chuckle.
This was the beginning of what Sampson calls an incredible adventure – one that she vowed to attack with every bit of positivity she could muster
“I thought it was going to be a lumpectomy, a little chemo, maybe a little radiation, and off we’d go, and it would be over by Christmas,” said Sampson. “And I was so wrong but what I realized is there’s no timeline on this journey. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. There are peaks and valleys all the time and you just learn to live with it and you learn to keep on going and you learn to find strength where you didn’t think you had it.
Sampson embarked on 12 weeks of chemo, which she began referring to as her “spa day.” This time her battle was much different. “I lost my hair. I lost my eyebrows, my eyelashes. My nails were actually black from the chemotherapy,” said Sampson.
When doctors added in immunotherapy to try to shrink the tumor, it ended up destroying her thyroid. When they switched Sampson to doxorubicin, not-so-fondly referred to as “the red devil” for her second round of chemo, it destroyed her white blood count, red blood count and platelets.
“Thankfully, my tumor had shrunk a little bit,” said Sampson. “And I opted for a double mastectomy to make sure I didn’t have to go through it again. But through it all, I was told and reassured by everybody that I encountered here at Hollings to expect the unexpected but know that we have a plan for it. That was huge and no matter what happened, I was treated with kindness, with dignity. I wasn’t a disease. I was a human being and a valued part of this team.”
After surgery with her surgical oncologist, Andrea Abbott, M.D., Sampson found new hope and determination in an unexpected place. Her oncologist, Frank Brescia, M.D. recommended physical therapy, something Sampson never even considered she would need. “I had no idea that my surgery would be so invasive – so widespread to other parts of my body,” she said.
She started seeing Katie Schmitt, DPT, twice a week to learn exercises that could help with her range of motion, mobility and strength, and Sampson said that’s not all she learned.
“Dr. Schmitt taught me about side effects. How you can make sure you’ve got drainage for your lymph nodes. I
didn’t know about that,” said Sampson, describing an exercise that can help to relieve swelling in the arms, called lymphedema, that occurs when the lymph nodes don’t drain properly after surgery.
“She also helped me look at different bras – mastectomy bras. She had all kinds of samples in her office and it was the first time that I felt pretty again. I was able to look at pretty little lingerie and know that, even though there was nothing there, I could still be feminine. I could still look attractive.”
Finding a new sense of self and new strength is not all that she has gained in her cancer journey. She decided early on in her fight that once she was feeling better, she was going to make it a priority to give back.
“So much has been given to me throughout this process,” said Sampson. “The people here at Hollings and at MUSC in general are amazing. The work they do; the love they show – I’m here because of them.”
And give back, she is. Sampson is planning to start volunteering at the infusion center in Mount Pleasant where she spent her “spa days” and also hopes to volunteer in the Ashley River Tower emergency room where she spent a lot of time when her cancer was at its worst. But that’s not all. Sampson is working with a friend and Schmitt to develop a binder for future patients so they know what to expect and what they’ll need to be comfortable every step of the way. She also wants to start a “boob buddy” app that pairs women battling breast cancer with other women dealing with the same kind.
“The thing that hurt me the most when I was going through this process was seeing people that were going through it alone,” said Sampson. “That broke my heart. I don’t think anybody should have to go through this alone. So that’s my goal going forward. I may not have the skill sets that I once had but I still have something left to give. I want to be able to be there for people who are going through this.”
On Nov. 5, Sampson will also be volunteering for LOWVELO, an annual fundraising event where 100% of money raised by participants funds lifesaving cancer research at Hollings Cancer Center. Riders can choose from four routes, stationary cycling or a virtual ride.
“I mean, I can’t ride the bike, but I thought, ‘Well, that will not stop me from doing something else,’” said Sampson. “So, I went through the list of everything you could do. There are multiple ways to give, multiple ways to serve. So, I signed up. I think it’s so important to be able to do this, and everything goes towards research. The more research we have, the quicker we find a cure.”
Sampson is now in the middle of her reconstruction process and will undergo some future surgeries as preventative measures to keep cancer from other parts of her body, but she is well on her way and got a clean bill of health from her doctors in April.
“I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. I’m happy and I’m healthy,” said Sampson. “I’ve learned to live with a lot of the side effects that have come about from this, but I’m stronger than I’ve than I’ve ever been – maybe not physically … but mentally.”
For other patients, Sampson recommends asking lots of question if you’re experiencing something that feels different or wrong. She recommends being proactive in asking for help from care team members when needed. The thing Sampson said helped her the most was setting little goals for herself throughout her cancer journey and, of course, remaining positive.
“Cancer changes you. It makes you appreciate everything you’ve ever taken for granted. A lot of things I’ve lost,” said Sampson, glancing down at her chest with a bit of a smirk. “But I’ve gained more, and I think that if you have that kind of an attitude, you’ll get through this, and you’ll find yourself on the other side a better, more positive, more powerful warrior.”