News from Illinois CancerCare

Cardio-oncology patient experiences benefit of collaboration

Panatagraph |

NORMAL — When Paula Kirk was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2015, she was upset.

When she was told later that month that the cancer had spread and was incurable, “I was pissed,” she recalled.

By the time doctors discovered a weakness in her heart — prompting Kirk to become the first patient of A Heart Institute’s cardio-oncology program — the 61-year-old Normal woman had embraced her role as patient-for-life.

“When Dr. (Samir) Shah asked if I would be in the program, I said ‘Yes, if I can help someone else by being in the p, I’ll do it.'”

So far, Kirk’s involvement in the program — in which she sees both an oncologist and cardiologist — has benefited her also.

“Paula Kirk was our first patient and she’s doing very well,” said Shah, a cardiologist with Advocate Heart Institute. “She is able to continue her treatments and remains very functional.”

Kirk has worked at State Farm for 39 years. Her husband, James, owns Kirk Repair Service.

In December 2014, she found a lump under her left armpit and then detected a mass under her left breast. In January, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a common breast cancer.

Understandably, she was upset.

But shortly thereafter, additional tests determined that the cancer was aggressive and had spread from her breast and lymph nodes to her liver, lungs and bones, said Dr. Pankaj Kumar, her oncologist.

“Dr. Kumar said ‘We can’t cure you but we can manage you.’ I was floored.”

The cancer was so aggressive that her left breast grew to twice the size of her right breast. Her hip was in pain from the tumor in her liver.

Chemotherapy began immediately and side effects included diarrhea, nausea, bloody nose and loss of hair, fingernails and toenails.

Concerned about the impact of chemotherapy on her heart, doctors did additional testing and concluded that her heart had weakened. Kumar referred her to Shah, who prescribed medication to protect her heart.

Kirk has seen Shah every three months. “He wants to see how my heart is doing with the cancer treatments,” Kirk said.

In addition to her heart medicine, she takes chemo pills, medicine for her thyroid and other medication.

Kirk also eats healthfully, exercises daily and keeps in contact with family, friends and co-workers as she continues to work and keep up with her treatments.

“I’ll be on chemo for the rest of my life unless they come out with a new drug,” she said matter-of-factly.

“She is such an up person that you can’t be down at all around her,” said her husband, James.

Treatments have been working so far. Her tumors have shrunk and her heart is functioning well.

“It’s going as well as could be expected,” Kirk said.

“She has had a most amazing response,” Kumar said. “The cancer isn’t visible. It hasn’t gone away completely and it won’t. But it’s being managed.”

Paul Swiech | Panatagraph
View Article: