Shawnta: The Gift of Herself

The best birthday gift Shawnta P. has ever given anyone was the gift of herself.

Alive. Vital. And in remission.

In the fall of 2009 Shawnta was a healthy 38 year-old; a wife and mother working as a dispatcher for the Baltimore City Police Department. At the time her son's wife was expecting. She was anxiously anticipating her first grandchild, and looking forward to celebrating an upcoming birthday with her mother.

Twenty years before, her mother, Ridia, had survived breast cancer. Despite Shawnta's seeming good health, since that time her mother worried about the chances of her daughter falling victim to the same terrible disease.

An Unwelcome Surprise

As fate would have it, that year the City of Baltimore offered free cancer screenings for employees. Perfect. Shawnta decided she would give her mother a special birthday gift. She would have a mammogram. The first she'd ever had. "I wanted to give the positive results as a present to her," she said. "I wanted to say, look, I had the test and I'm fine."

But instead of getting a gift she could give with joy, Shawnta received an unwelcome surprise. "As soon as the mammogram was done they asked me to come back in a couple of hours," she said. "I knew that wasn't good."

It wasn't.

She returned to the clinic and was told the mammogram had revealed masses in both breasts. Within an hour, biopsies were performed. Several days later she got the news both she and her mother had feared. Doctors had identified nine cancerous tumors in her left breast and five in her right.

"The first question I asked was whether this was terminal," she said, "They said it could be. I didn't tell my mother or my son right away. I was devastated. I never thought I would lose a breast at 38."

In fact, she would lose both breasts.

But she would get them back. And more. And thanks to a strong family, and the doctors and staff at Mercy Medical Center, she would also find a way to give her mother and her family a greater gift than she'd ever intended.

A Cancer Battle Won

Shawnta was eventually diagnosed with HER2-positive, an aggressive form of breast cancer. Her first step after the diagnosis was to find a good hospital and a good breast cancer surgeon. She chose Mercy Medical Center and Dr. Gauri Bedi, Associate Director of The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy. Dr. Bedi would eventually perform a total bilateral mastectomy over the next year and a half. Shawnta would also undergo three rounds of chemotherapy that would last a total of one year.

Shawnta now looks back on her cancer battle and without hesitation says Dr. Bedi "saved my life" with her thorough and professional care and treatment. And while she has tremendous gratitude for that portion of her care, she is equally indebted to the Mercy physician who performed her breast reconstructive surgery, the doctor she says "who made me feel like a woman again."

That would be Mercy's Dr. Brendan Collins. When she initially saw Dr. Bedi about treating her breast cancer, Shawnta said, she was also referred to Mercy's Breast Reconstruction and Restoration Center. "I had to choose a surgeon to do the reconstruction. I asked around and I prayed about it and I chose Dr. Collins," she said. "He was the perfect choice."

In January 2011, Dr. Collins performed a Deep Inferior Epigastric Artery Perforator (DIEP) Flap procedure, taking skin and tissue from Shawnta's abdomen to recreate both breasts. She was completely happy with the results.

"When I knew I had to have the mastectomy, my husband said he didn't care if they had to remove my arm, as long as he still had me," she said. "But I didn't want him to look at me and think of the woman I wasn't anymore. I was afraid I'd never be the same.

"But Dr. Collins did such a great job. He allowed me to feel good about myself. I have some scars, yes, but they're my scars. I'm always referring Dr. Collins to people because I'm so comfortable with him. He's just very impressive."

Blessings in Remission

Officially now "in remission," Shawnta has returned to work and life. And the only surprises she's had lately have been good ones. While she was on medical leave she was promoted to a supervisor position, and two years ago she welcomed a healthy grandchild into a world that she is happy to still be a part of.

Another happy surprise, she said, was the care and treatment she received from Mercy doctors and staff. "I had no idea Mercy had that kind of top-notch quality care for cancer patients," she noted. "I'm so blessed that's where I went for treatment."

And as for her mom, Shawnta was there recently to celebrate her 60th birthday. "Being there with her on her birthday was my gift," she said. "What better blessing could I possibly ever receive or give?"

Shawnta's Treatment Team