GRATEFUL for great care – A young woman’s breast cancer journey

Riverside Oncologist Dr. Veerapaneni with healthy young female cancer survivor LexieLexie Painter was enjoying a few carefree winter days in 2020 with friends in St. Louis. When she hopped into the shower one morning, she happened to run her hand across her right breast and felt a lump. But breast cancer was the last thing on her mind. After all, Painter, of Kankakee, was just 25 years old.

“You don’t often hear of people my age getting breast cancer,” she says.

When the lump was still there a week later, Painter saw her doctor to have it checked out. After she had an ultrasound and her doctor recommended a biopsy, Painter knew something was wrong. Soon thereafter, Painter learned that she had early-stage invasive lobular carcinoma, a disease that usually strikes women twice her age.

“I was a little in shock,” Painter recalls. “I didn’t know how to feel.”

Breast cancer doesn’t run in her family, she says. And she tested negative for inherited gene mutations that put young women at high risk for breast cancer. Armed with a positive attitude, Painter was determined to face cancer head-on. After she had a mastectomy, she needed chemotherapy and radiation therapy to reduce the risk of her cancer coming back. She met with Annabelle Veerapaneni, MD, an oncologist at Riverside Cancer Institute, who crafted an aggressive treatment plan that minimized the risk of side effects on Painter’s current and future health.

Only about 11% of all breast cancers occur in women younger than 45, Dr. Veerapaneni notes. “In a community our size, we don’t anticipate very large numbers of women this young presenting with breast cancer. But we’re certainly prepared to take care of them, as we did for Lexie.”

“You can tell Dr. Veerapaneni knows her stuff,” Painter says. What’s more, she felt that her doctor and nurses really cared for her as a person.

“I just fell in love with Dr. Veerapaneni and how she went about everything,” Painter says. “She explained everything in ways I could understand. She made me really trust her with everything, which was very important.”

Advanced therapies close to home

Painter had 16 rounds of chemo, followed by 28 rounds of radiation therapy. Riverside is home to advanced radiation therapies that target tumors with high precision while sparing healthy tissue and minimizing the side effects.

“With the intensity and complicated schedule for her chemotherapy and radiation, it was nice to be able to offer Lexie, and other patients like her, the benefit of being able to stay closer to home,” Dr. Veerapaneni says.

“The facility is super-nice, and everybody is just awesome,” Painter says. “They made me feel like I wasn’t just another patient.”

Riverside also surrounds people with support during cancer. Services from social workers, dietitians and cancer navigators are available.

“We make sure our patients have pretty much every aspect of their universe addressed as they’re going through treatment,” Dr. Veerapaneni says.

A joyful show of support

Painter also found strength in her friends, family and then-boyfriend, Jayme, who is now her husband. When she shaved her long blond hair during chemo, Jayme shaved his hair in solidarity. Then he proposed to her.

“I was super-bald and everything,” she says. “He got down on one knee. He stuck by my side. He’s a keeper.”

Painter is now cancer-free. She takes a maintenance hormone therapy drug called tamoxifen, which helps prevent hormone receptor-positive breast cancers, like hers, from recurring.

Painter has a message for other young women who notice any breast changes. “If you find something or something doesn’t feel right, get it checked,” she says.

To learn more about cancer services at Riverside Healthcare, please visit Riverside Cancer Institute