Why second opinions for breast cancer matter

11:52 AM, Jun 05, 2019

Teaching kids problem-solving skills is a passion for Lynn Walkuski – a Wayne County math, science and social studies teacher. She put those skills to work in a way she never imagined in March 2016.

"I left the gym, and I noticed there was a pulling under my right arm,” recalled Walkuski.

Her primary care physician suggested checking it when Walkuski’s mammogram was scheduled in two months.

At the time of the mammogram, a shadow was found. A 3D mammogram revealed a mass, and on the same day, Walkuski had a biopsy.

"They called me the next day and said, ‘you tested positive for breast cancer.' Imagine my surprise,” she said.

That was August 31, 2016 – about five months after she first felt something wrong.

Trusting your gut

Lynn initially saw a surgeon and geneticist. Both suggested that the tumor was a typical, easy to treat cancer. Because Lynn was 55 years old, there was less than a one percent chance for the cancer to have genetic component.

Even though Lynn had five cousins with breast cancer, the geneticist used statistics to support the opinion that Lynn’s was not an aggressive cancer.

But Walkuski wanted to get three more opinions.

"I'm a science teacher. What do [scientists] tell you? They do three trials, right?” she said.

Dr. Jessica Bensenhaver, director of the Breast Cancer Program at Henry Ford Cancer Institute, was Walkuski’s last stop.

"Although she presented with an early stage cancer, she had a very significant family history. Our team was highly suspicious that she was likely a genetic mutation carrier,” explained Dr. Bensenhaver.

Dr. Bensenhaver and her team - comprised of medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, breast cancer surgeons, reconstructive plastic surgeons, pathologists and nurse navigators – recommended a double mastectomy.

Walkuski took Dr. Bensenhaver’s recommendation without hesitation.

“It felt right. It felt peaceful. She explained why she made that choice,” said Walkuski.

Genetic testing revealed Lynn had an aggressive form of breast cancer, called triple negative ductal carcinoma, which was caused by a BRCA 1 genetic mutation. If both breasts weren’t removed, another cancer would likely appear.

Within three days, Walkuski had the double mastectomy, followed by four months of chemotherapy, surgery to remove her ovaries, and then reconstruction.

Why you should get a second opinion

When facing a serious illness like cancer, Lynn believes nothing should stand in your way of receiving care that provides the greatest opportunity for success and makes you feel comfortable.

Still plenty of patients don’t seek out a second opinion. In fact, according to a 2017 study, 90 percent of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients (out of nearly 2,000) didn’t get one.

Why? Some patients feel pressured to start treatment right away and don’t want to stall. Others are afraid that seeking advice from another doctor might offend their current physician and impact their relationship moving forward.

Here are five reasons why Henry Ford Cancer Institute experts say getting a second opinion should be a top priority on your road to recovery:

1. Peace of mind. Even if you feel like you’ve already found the right doctor, you may want reassurance to quell the ‘what-ifs.’ While a second opinion may not offer something different, it can confirm your original team’s treatment plan.

2. Up-to-date treatment. One physician might not be better or worse than another, but they may not know about a new treatment because of the rapid-fire cancer breakthroughs that are happening. While seeking a second opinion, you may learn of a new treatment available that’s only recently emerged.

3. Different perspectives. Most of the time, successful treatment is not the result of just one doctor’s efforts. Instead, it requires a team of oncologists, surgeons, nurses and more who each bring a different perspective and approach to treatment.

4. Access to clinical trials. Clinical trials offer new approaches in preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases. Oftentimes, cancer patients who seek second opinions at different facilities will learn of a current or upcoming clinical trial that’s right for them.

5. You don’t like what you hear. If the first opinion you receive fills you with fear or doubt, know that another doctor might have a different approach in mind.

Learn more and schedule your second opinion: henryford.com/BreastCancerExperts

Wake up to the latest breaking news, weather and traffic