As a community activist, Eutha Prince likes a project. She is now embracing her role as a breast cancer survivor and using her newfound strength to continue her work in West Harlem, New York. This proud mother was diagnosed and treated at MSK in 2012. Now, she says, “I went from a scary place in my life to feeling blessed, and feeling like this was meant to be.”
- Eutha Prince was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2012 and underwent innovative therapies at MSK.
- Doctors recommended immunotherapy, using a drug known as a checkpoint inhibitor, as part of her treatment before surgery.
- After a mastectomy, Eutha and her doctors chose reconstructive breast surgery using the TRAM flap procedure.
- Eutha says she is delighted with the way she looks and loving her second chance at life.
Every year, Eutha Prince celebrates summer with a vacation in August — and she starts that vacation with a mammogram, which she calls a gift to herself. In 2012, doctors saw something on that mammogram in her right breast that looked suspicious. After a follow-up ultrasound and biopsy, Eutha learned she had breast cancer. “It’s so hard to even put myself back there,” she says now, as tears start to flow. “Terrified. I was shocked and I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. My daughters were with me. That word, ‘cancer’ — it does something to you. I said, ‘I’m not ready to leave.’”
Eutha was diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal and lobular carcinoma. Her cancer was both estrogen- and progesterone-receptor positive, as well as HER2 positive. Knowing all this helped doctors plan treatment that was tailored to the unique characteristics of her disease.
Eutha needed surgery to remove her tumor. But her doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering recommended that before she headed into the operating room, she should undergo a course of immunotherapy. This exciting class of cancer treatment mobilizes the power of a patient’s own immune system and harnesses it to fight the cancer. There are several types of immunotherapy, including medications known as checkpoint inhibitors that work by “switching on” immune cells so they’re ready to attack cancer cells.
Eutha received one such drug, ipilimumab, as part of a clinical trial at MSK. Medical oncologist Elizabeth Comen, a leading immunotherapy researcher, explains that most immunotherapy trials involve patients with advanced breast cancer that has already spread to other parts of the body. But in newer trials, doctors are trying the treatments in patients like Eutha who have early-stage breast cancer. “The ultimate goal is to give immunotherapy prior to surgery for early-stage breast cancer to see if you can improve the outcome,” Dr. Comen says.
Just days after her diagnosis, Eutha received her immunotherapy injection. She says the decision to participate in the research was easy. “If this were to help myself and anyone else in the future,” she says, “how could I not participate in this trial?”
As the immunotherapy got to work, Eutha had a mastectomy on her right side, and several of her lymph nodes were removed. She knew she wanted breast reconstruction surgery, but like so many women, she faced an important question: When should she have it? Her MSK surgeon, Virgilo Sacchini, says the philosophy of MSK physicians is to work together as a team from the very beginning to help patients navigate this question. “We have the ability, at the very first consultation, to create a three-dimensional picture of the patient,” he says. “Then we can translate the picture right away, asking plastic surgeons what they think, and work together.”
Knowing that Eutha needed chemotherapy and radiation after her mastectomy, her doctors recommended she wait to have breast reconstruction surgery. As her radiation oncologist, Beryl McCormick, says, the skin often undergoes subtle changes in the days and weeks after radiation treatment, and delaying reconstruction can often give patients better results.
During three months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation, Eutha says her family was by her side at every treatment. Her two daughters and two grandsons would bring her lunch, make her laugh, and remind her that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
About eight months after her final radiation treatment, MSK reconstructive surgeon Andrea Pusic performed a TRAM flap procedure for Eutha. Using Eutha’s own skin and fat, Dr. Pusic created a new breast for her while simultaneously performing a reduction surgery on her other breast to make sure both would match closely. Dr. Pusic emphasizes that deciding on the type of reconstructive surgery is a “tailored, personalized process. The goal when meeting a patient is first understanding her values and preferences, and then together choosing the best option.”
Eutha says she couldn’t be happier with the way she looks: “I am just overjoyed! When I showed my support group, they could not believe it. You can’t even tell which one is the reconstructed breast and which is the natural one.”
So much has changed since Eutha first got that diagnosis of breast cancer: She is back to work as the district manager for her community board in New York City’s West Harlem neighborhood. She is relishing every moment of life, feeling like she has a second chance to do everything she has always wanted to do. “I went from a scary place in my life to feeling blessed, and feeling like this was meant to be,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”