Like most working mothers, Chrystina Collins is a busy woman.
A registered nurse who cares for pre- and post-op patients at NorthBay Health’s Ambulatory Surgery Center in Vacaville, she’s also a wife and has four children between the ages of 9 and 17, all of whom are active in sports. “Yes, life gets hectic,” she concurred.
When she felt a tiny lump in her right breast in the summer of 2021, she figured she’d wait to get it checked out when she had a mammogram.
Several months passed and in February of 2022, she saw a friend at work who was there for a lumpectomy. The encounter reminded her to follow up on that important exam.
Chrystina’s primary care physician sent a referral for a mammogram at NorthBay Health’s Diagnostic Imaging department, in the VacaValley Wellness Center. That day, Feb. 16, turned her world upside down.
“I didn’t even make it out of the mammogram before the radiologist came in to tell me she saw an area of concern and felt fairly confident the lump was cancerous. She sent a referral for me to see an oncologist and to have a biopsy.”
That oncologist was Brian Vikstrom, M.D., who would take over Chrystina’s treatment plan.
“It is always best to diagnose a cancer when it is smaller as cure rates are higher for earlier stage tumors,” Dr. Vikstrom said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing an increase in the rate of breast cancer among younger women. While developing breast cancer under the age of 40 is uncommon, it is not rare. Recommendations are now that women ages 40 to 49 have mammographic screening yearly, rather than every other year.”
During the next 10 days Chrystina also met with Jason Marengo, M.D., an oncoplastic surgeon, had the biopsy and a breast MRI.
The biopsy revealed cancer and the MRI confirmed it had had already spread to two lymph nodes.
It was a whirlwind time, she admitted. “It all happened so fast. One day you’re one person, and the next you’re in a whole new world. I’m a nurse but I just didn’t know anything about cancer treatment. I had absolutely no experience with this, and I got a crash course.”
“I was pretty clueless at that point and she walked me through the treatment plan, explaining everything step by step. She answered all my questions. Natasha does so many things behind the scenes for her patients.”
She also underwent genetic testing to discover if there were any mutations, which would then determine the best course of treatment. The genetic tests all came back negative, but a biopsy revealed an aggressive form of HER II Positive breast cancer. She then underwent rounds of chemotherapy that concluded in July.
“Even in the absence of a family history, younger women with breast cancer have a higher chance of having been born with a cancer gene, which is usually caused by a mutation in a gene responsible for repairing DNA,” Dr. Vikstrom said. “All women age 50 and under with breast cancer now qualify for DNA testing to see if they carry one of 70 or more genes associated with increased cancer risk.”
A follow-up MRI in August revealed some cancer remained, so Chrystina underwent a mastectomy with removal of many lymph nodes, followed by radiation in November and more rounds of chemotherapy, set to conclude in August 2023. After her chemo treatment, she plans to have breast reconstruction in the fall.
While Chrystina’s cancer was aggressive, she was told it could probably have been addressed at its earliest stage if she had had a mammogram when she first noticed the lump.
The experience has affected Chrystina’s entire family, but in a life-affirming way. “The children have all really stepped up and helped each other out. They’re loving and staying positive. We all have a new perspective. We have changed the way we live, and are trying to slow down and live life.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Wellspring Magazine. See our other patient stories or learn more about the NorthBay Health Cancer Center, its physicians and programs or call (707) 624-8000.