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Family history not always present in breast cancer cases

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Posted: Friday, October 4, 2013 10:57 pm

To say that Julie Novak of Colver was surprised to learn that she had breast cancer would be an understatement.

“I was more than shocked to be told I had breast cancer since there is no history of it on either side of my family, said Novak, 43.

What caused the disease if not genetics?

The doctors’ only explanation about her illness was that it had to be chalked up to bad luck, Novak said.

Since the National Cancer Institute guidelines suggest women over 40 years old should have a mammogram once every one to two years, Novak was quick to make an appointment when she reached the age.

“When I went for my first-ever mammogram, I felt something that wasn’t right,” Novak said. “I learned that day that there was something wrong and had to return a week later for a biopsy.”

They discovered a single tumor in one of her breasts and it turned out to be malignant.

Her doctor, Gerard Garguilo of Conemaugh Physicians Group, wasted no time in pursuing treatment.

“I started chemotherapy in July to shrink the tumor,” she said. “It took six chemotherapy treatments to shrink it enough to where I could have surgery.”

Following her diagnosis, Novak’s concern turned to the disease spreading to her remaining breast.

“I asked that if they could guarantee that I wouldn’t contract cancer in my other breast and they said there are no guarantees,” Novak said.

She decided that the gamble to keep her remaining breast wasn’t worth the risk.

The original mass was reduced and Novak underwent a double mastectomy in January 2012.

“I was fortunate that my insurance covered the mastectomies and the reconstructive surgery following the procedure,” she said.

Novak is a single mother of two adult sons, ages 26 and 20.

“I had genetic testing and discovered that I did not carry the breast cancer gene,” she said. “That was good news for my sons, who would have had to be tested for prostate cancer at a much earlier age had I been a carrier.”

Novak had implant surgery in May 2012.

“Following my implants, I underwent 27 rounds of radiation,” she said.

She feels fortunate that she didn’t suffer too many side effects and tolerated the treatments well.

“I didn’t get sick from chemo, just a little nausea, which was handled with medication,” Novak said.

Radiation treatments lasted only about five minutes for each session. She finished radiation treatments in August 2012.

During her ordeal, Novak has continued to work as the bar manager of the Ebensburg American Legion on West High Street in the borough.

Novak gives credit to her medical team for helping her through the rough spots.

 “I would say the medical care I received here was excellent,” she said. “From Dr. Garguilo and Dr. (Paul) Rollins, who did my reconstructive surgery, I felt I was in good hands.”

Novak takes only one pill a day as a maintenance drug, which she will be required to take for at least five years.

Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on LavisTD.