By Amanda Sangster - August 01, 2023
For over 20 years, Vonda Westmoreland, 48, has faced lumps in her breasts. Her history of fibroadenomas, or noncancerous tumors found in breast tissue, has led to surgeries in her early 20s and again in 2018 to remove the suspicious lumps. She knew she needed to be proactive about breast screening.
Westmoreland committed to having mammograms every six months due to her history. When a recent annual physical revealed a lump in her right breast, she wasn’t expecting a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer.
“I knew not to take this lightly,” Westmoreland said. A month after the lump was found in her right breast, she began experiencing discomfort. Following a visit with a radiologist and a biopsy, Westmoreland received a phone call from the breast cancer clinic that she described as informative but abrupt.
“She was a little blunt and quick over the phone,” Westmoreland said. “She was just like, ‘Yeah, you have invasive breast cancer.’ Click.” Westmoreland did not feel comfortable with her patient experience and was ready for a second opinion.
“It was Thanksgiving weekend that Dr. Kiluk called us,” Westmoreland said. “He had already spoken to my primary care provider and wanted me to tell him more. And we just talked through things, and he gave his perspective before even seeing my full record.”
That phone call completely shifted Westmoreland’s perspective.
“Already, we were just more comfortable with him,” Westmoreland continued. “Especially given that he was so highly recommended by other doctors. At the other health system, there was just a standard of care, no personalized treatment based on my specific case or how my tumor was presenting.”
Kiluk recommended a different treatment plan personalized to Westmoreland that planned for surgery first to hopefully decrease the need for additional treatments.
Westmoreland had a unilateral mastectomy to remove her right breast in January 2023 at Moffitt’s Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Outpatient Center. She praised the surgical staff there for their care and attention.
“Whoever taught my husband how to take care of the drains and care for me, they did a great job training him to make sure he was comfortable with that,” Westmoreland said. “They were so mindful of the family members that would be overseeing care.”
Unfortunately, after that surgery, pathology reports found cancerous cells in some of the removed lymph nodes, which meant chemotherapy would be needed. She finished her recent round in June to prepare for another surgery.
"We have to look at each case individually and come up with the best treatment for each and every patient."- Dr. John Kiluk, Breast Oncology Program
Westmoreland was one of the first patients to have surgery at Moffitt McKinley Hospital, a new inpatient surgical facility that opened on Moffitt’s McKinley Campus on July 31. She had the successful removal of remaining lymph nodes and a lymphovenous bypass, a procedure that redirects lymphatic fluid to eliminate lymphedema.
“I would really like to feel assured that there’s nothing left in the lymph nodes to be concerned about,” said Westmoreland while speaking about her treatment plan. “I feel like it’s a thorough approach to reduce my risk of recurrence.”
Triple-negative breast cancer comprises approximately 10% to 15% of all breast cancer cases and differentiates itself with several key characteristics. Most notably, triple-negative cells are absent of three hormone receptors — estrogen, progesterone and the HER2 protein — which usually exist in healthy breast cells.
“We are all different,” Kiluk said. “Every case is so different. We have to look at each case individually and come up with the best treatment for each and every patient.”
Westmoreland’s surgery was a resounding success. Following her recovery, Westmoreland will begin radiation therapy and continue her treatment at Moffitt.
“Dr. Kiluk works really hard to help patients feel comfortable and understand what’s happening,” Westmoreland said. “He gives you a hug. It feels like a human approach and not so clinical. It seems like the tone from the top at Moffitt is just kind and compassionate.”