By Elise Esprit
Known around town as "Chef Stef," Stephanie Williams has worked for 14 years in Del Mar — first as a chef at Epazote (now Sunset Bar and Grill in the plaza), and then for the last five years as a manager at Americana Restaurant, at 15th Street and Camino del Mar. Always a happy-go-lucky person, in April 2008, at age 51, she received a distressing diagnosis: metastatic breast cancer.
Now, 19 months later, Williams is winning the battle against her cancer without any surgery, radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
She is anxious to share her story with others in the same situation and offer some advice.
First, she said, try to stay calm and study up on breast cancer online. Read anything you can get your hands on to learn what can be done to treat your cancer.
Next, after consulting with your doctor, know that you can find another if you are not comfortable with your doctor's message.
Williams' response to the surgeon who performed her biopsy was that there was to be no mastectomy and no chemotherapy. Together they had better come up with some other options in order to shrink the tumors, save her breast and ultimately save her life.
"Any women who is diagnosed with breast cancer needs to make sure that she gets what is called her 'staging studies' done BEFORE any surgery or BEFORE beginning any type of systemic treatment," she advised.
"Staging studies usually include MRIs, CT/PET scans and pathology reports to determine the type of breast cancer found."
She said she was told by an oncologist she saw at the UCLA Medical Center that he was surprised her staging studies were done first, when it is usually surgery that is done first.
She added that her oncologist also told her that she was lucky to have a particular type of breast cancer, which is labeled as "HER2 Positive," that can be treated without chemotherapy.
This diagnosis led the way to the successful two-drug treatment plan for her.
After starting drug treatments in June 2008, first with Femara and then in July 2008 with Herceptin (by intravenous drip), her tumors started to shrink.
And shrink they did. First, her liver lesion slowly disappeared, which originally was 3 centimeters in diameter, and then her breast tumor receded, which started out at 6 centimeters.
HER2 positive is a breast cancer that is estrogen receptive. Femara, which is taken orally, stops the body from producing the hormone estrogen. Herceptin, which is a monoclonal antibody, starves the cancerous tumor so that it eventually shrinks and dies. Herceptin does have some side effects, but they are minor by comparison to those of chemotherapy treatments. There is also a risk to the heart, but this side effect can be managed if any heart complications do arise. For this reason, echocardiograms are performed periodically during the treatment course.
Luckily for Williams, she has not experienced any ill-side effects from the drugs Herceptin and Femara so far.
She has been her own health advocate and this, too, has paid off. Along with her drug regimen, she bicycles, lifts weights, does sit-ups, leg lifts and push-ups to keep her body strong.
Additionally, she includes large doses of vitamin D3, which promotes healthy breast tissue. As long as the drugs Herceptin and Femara continue to work, Williams will stay on her prescribed drug treatment plan. She will soon reach her three-year goal, which will hopefully end her course of drug treatment. Only time will tell if this happens.
Laurie Frakes, M.D., of San Diego Pacific Oncology & Hematology Associates Inc., called Williams "a remarkable woman. "
"She faced a serious disease-stage IV breast cancer with hope and determination," Frakes said. "She is very educated and is proactive in her care. She has been fortunate to have her disease controlled with hormonal and immune therapy. I am hopeful she will do well for many more years, feeling as strong as she does today."
According to statistics, one in three women will have a breast cancer scare in her lifetime and one in eight women will have to be treated for some kind of breast cancer.
"But the future is now," Williams said. "And there are a lot of new options available to treat breast cancer. Ultimately, we ourselves are the best advocates for what feels right and what will be the right treatment plan for our own bodies."