Talking Hope: Holistic approach to cancer care uplifts grateful two-time breast cancer survivor

Sheree Santos is a two-time breast cancer survivor and a grateful patient at City of Hope Orange County. Sheree joins us to share how she addressed both the physical and emotional issues that can arise during and after cancer treatment.

For Sheree, experiencing art – and the healing and comfort it can provide – elevated her well-being on her journey to cancer survivorship. In this episode, you will see examples of the inspirational artwork that surrounds patients at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, including several pieces that held a special – and unexpected – meaning for Sheree when she arrived there for the first time.

Make an Appointment: Call 888-333-HOPE (4673).

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Darrin Godin: Well, hello everybody, and welcome back to Talking Hope. I'm your host, Darrin Godin, and I'm pleased to be speaking with Sheree Santos.

Sheree is a two-time breast cancer survivor, and she's joining us to share her personal journey with breast cancer and her message of encouragement for others. She's a grateful patient at City of Hope, Orange County, and I just want to say thank you, Sheree, for being in conversation with us today and joining us on the podcast.

Sheree Santos: You're welcome. It's nice being here.

Darrin Godin: So, let's take our listeners back. Can you tell us about your personal journey with cancer?

Sheree Santos: Seventeen years ago, I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It was early stage, and thank goodness I was good about getting my mammograms and my yearly mammograms. It was caught early stage, but it was invasive, so they recommended I get a lumpectomy and I had the full range of chemotherapy, then radiation, and 10 years of hormone therapy.

And then last year, 2022, I was diagnosed on the other side. And because they found that I had a gene mutation, it wasn't BRCA, that's the one most people know about. It was something called CHEK2. So, the odds were less than if I had BRCA, but still high. And they said with my age and that gene mutation, they recommended I get a bilateral mastectomy and I wanted a second opinion because this was from my community hospital and I was thinking about reconstruction, and so they recommended I go to a more comprehensive cancer center. And so, I went to City of Hope, Irvine, who had just opened. I was probably one of the first few patients the week that they opened. It was good.

Darrin Godin: So, gosh, hearing the words you have cancer once, is life-changing enough. Ten years later, hearing you have cancer again, what went through your head? How did you deal with that?

Sheree Santos: Fortunately, I am a glass half full kind of gal. So, when I first heard it, I just thought, "Okay." The first thing on my mouth was, "All right, what's the plan? How do we get rid of it?" I just knew I was strong and let's get rid of it. What do we do? And so they told me what they recommended and I said, "Let's go." And even though it was kind of my choice whether to do chemotherapy, it really was. They were giving me the choice. They were saying, "You have this percentage that it will return if you do this, and then this percentage if you do that." And I was all in because I thought, I'm this age right now. If I wait and 10 years, 20 years from now, it comes back again, little did I know it would. But at the time I thought, I'm younger now, and chemotherapy I know is tough so let's just do it now. Let's just do it. I don't want this stuff coming back. So, I was positive about it.

Darrin Godin: So, the second time you hear you have cancer again and they suggest coming to a more comprehensive cancer center and you make your way to City of Hope, Orange County. What was different about that experience?

Sheree Santos: What was different was the recommendation of getting mastectomy. Hearing those words hit me a little harder than just hearing that I had cancer itself, which sounds very strange, but again, I was getting all my tests and because of my gene mutation, I had to get mammogram six months later, breast MRI, six months later. I was being tested often, twice a year. And this second one last year, was caught on the breast MRI. And if I didn't do the gene tracing, I wouldn't have known that I needed to get a breast MRI. I would've just be going for my yearly mammograms and it could have been a different story.

It was caught early. This time it was non-invasive, so I had a lot of decisions to make, and that was really tough. I mean, want to get into the mental part of it maybe, in a little bit?

Darrin Godin: No, please go ahead. Tell us how is that impacting you?

Sheree Santos: Yeah, the first time I told you I was very positive. "Let's do the plan. Let's get rid of it." And I'm generally a strong person and positive, like I said. So, I went through chemotherapy. I don't think I cried one time when them telling me that I had cancer. Going through chemotherapy, which was very, very difficult. Going through radiation, which was not fun. Ten years of hormone therapy, which did the hot flashes and everything else that happens.
Once I was done with radiation, I had... This part's hard to talk about and I don't tell a lot of people, but I feel it's so important because I would bet that a lot of people, or a lot of women, I had a mental breakdown and they called it a situational. And I thought when they started me on the hormone therapy, I thought the medication was making me go crazy. I was very ignorant about mental illness.
I didn't know what was happening to me. I couldn't stop crying. I was lashing out at people. I literally thought the world was coming to an end. So, I knew to go to my doctor because I thought it was the pills they were giving me for the hormone therapy. And he said, "No, no." My oncologist said, "It's not. It's not." He happened to know my GP really well. So, he called him. They called me and said, "Get in here right now." And I went in there and I'm crying. I'm just like a mess. And he said, "You never cried or anything during the diagnosis, your chemotherapy. You never cried, did you?" And I said, "No, because I was strong. I can do this." I was a manager at a big aerospace company and he said, "Sheree, you're having situational mental breakdown." And he gave me medication. Thank God, I got through it.

This time, getting diagnosed last year, it happened when I needed to make the decision about the mastectomy, but I knew what it was this time. I felt it. I could tell how I was lashing out at people that I normally don't lash out at. And I knew right away. And I called the doctor and I said, "I think I need some medication, just temporarily till I get through these decisions." And that part is rough, and it makes me sad to think about other people that probably go through that and they don't talk about it and they don't get help for it. I know how it feels. I didn't want to tell anybody. It could have really gone wrong.

Darrin Godin: Sheree, thank you so much for sharing that. That is an aspect of many diagnoses probably, but also for those who are facing a cancer journey. And also one of the reasons why it's so important that at City of Hope, we're really creating this integrated program, medicine program, where we're really looking at supportive care and the different aspects of things that we could wrap around a patient to provide them the support they need. And I think the mental health portion is something that you're right, maybe a lot of people don't talk about enough, but it is a part of discussion here at City of Hope. It is something that we're aware of. It is something that we're trying to make sure that we have the right resources available to patients so that they're supported in that area.

So, you came to City of Hope, Orange County. You're having some of those issues as well. How did our physicians, or how did your care team support you through that?

Sheree Santos: I've talked about this before. Walking in and seeing, I felt so calm walking in. I literally did. Looking around at the beautiful artwork. It's beautifully furnished. New beautiful furniture. It just felt so calm and going up into the, I say this word a lot beautiful, but the room, waiting for the surgeon to come in to meet her, and she just... Jennifer. Dr. Jennifer Tseng is amazing. She's just amazing. She's so understanding, got down to my level, understood everything I was telling her, really listened to me. Gosh, I can't say enough about the team.

Hope to God I never have cancer again, but the only place I'm coming is City of Hope, Orange County. And that's not a plug because I'm getting paid or anything because I'm not. My community hospital was fine going through it 17 years ago, the first time. They were fine with me. They were great. It's just not the same. I'm probably still going to get tests and stuff there just because it's close. It's a little closer to me but if I need anything further than tests, you would see me. I hope you don't see me, but you might.

Darrin Godin: Well, we're glad that we were able to be a part of that journey and get you back to health. So, how are you feeling today, Sheree?

Sheree Santos: Amazing. Feel great. I had some reconstruction in May, and I got to go in for a little touch-up with Dr. Jeff Chang and Duarte. I feel great. I'm doing everything that I was doing before, so working out and going on vacations and feeling fine.

Darrin Godin: Oh, we're very excited to hear that.
So tell us, Sheree, how has art played a role in your healing?

Sheree Santos: Seeing it when I walked in, it's just calming to look at. Sitting in the room and seeing the big screen TV, all the art is going through one by one, and you're not waiting long, but just waiting for a little bit, for everybody to get set up. And just seeing all that artwork, it just takes you away. It could take you away to the ocean. It takes you away into greenery and plants and landscapes, and it just makes you feel like you could be somewhere else. So, it's just calming. It's calming to the mind.

Darrin Godin: I heard you speak recently and you shared a story about how some of your girlfriends took you to some local museums when you were first diagnosed and how that art was really meaningful to you and gave you that sense of calm. And then as you were just talking about when you came in the cancer center, you saw some of our art. And for those who may not be familiar with what we have at the Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, we have a art gallery exhibition that rotates every six months, and it's made up of art from local artists across Orange County.

And so Sheree, I understand that when you came to City of Hope, Orange County, and you were seeing that art on the screens, and those are just pictures of what's actually hanging in the hallways, you had an interesting coincidence happen. So, tell us about that. What surprise happened there?

Sheree Santos: Waiting for Dr. Tseng, looking through all the art coming up digitally on that screen, I all of a sudden noticed an art piece that looked very familiar, and I looked down at the bottom to see the artist, and it was my cousin. And I knew we hadn't talked in a while, and I knew she lived in Irvine, and I of course knew she was an artist. I have some of her magnets and stuff. I couldn't afford one of her paintings, actually. So, I've got some of her same paintings, but on a magnet. And it was her. And I said, "Oh my gosh, what a coincidence. This is great." And I contacted her right away. I posted on Facebook. It was great just to reconnect with her too. And it was so wonderful to see her on Monday.

Darrin Godin: So what a coincidence or divine.

Sheree Santos: It was wonderful.

Darrin Godin: Divine. Whatever we want to call it. That's got to be something that spoke to you that day, like, "Wow, I'm in the right place."

Sheree Santos: Yes. Well, that even happened with when I was ready to go to a comprehensive cancer center, you had just opened and City of Hope, Orange County, was on the TV, was on the radio. I saw billboards and I thought, "This is a sign. This is just happening right now when I need it." And it was a sign to come. And then the artwork, oh my gosh. It's all been just amazing. I could start crying right now. Anytime I think about it, I get a little teary eyed.

Darrin Godin: Wow. Sheree, thank you for telling that story. We ask all of our guests on the show this question. What does hope, or what does the concept of hope mean to you? What's your answer on that?

Sheree Santos: The future. Hope is necessary to heal.

Darrin Godin: As we wrap up today's podcast, I'm wondering what is the message that you share with others, specifically about cancer and being an advocate for yourself? What's that message you like to share with others?

Sheree Santos: Get tested when they tell you to go get your colonoscopy, go get it. Don't be scared. When they tell you to get your mammogram, go get it. Both of my cancers were stage one because I always get tested. I continue to get tested. I can't say that enough. It's just, take care of yourself. I'm not the best eater. Yeah, I got a sugar cravings all the time. I need to get off of that and it doesn't help things. But even with that, that's another reason I make sure I get tested all the time.

Darrin Godin: Thank you. Good message. Good message. I mean, our best shot at cancer is preventing cancer.

Sheree Santos: Yes.

Darrin Godin: And then of course, your best shot if you are diagnosed with cancer is the first time you hear that, getting to see specialists who know and who are experts in what you've been diagnosed with.

So Sheree, thank you so much again for spending your time with us today. Thank you for telling your story. Thank you for being so candid about the mental health issues that went along with that. I think that's so helpful for people to hear and to know they're not alone in that. And of course to know that they should talk to their providers if they're having those things. That they're not alone. It's not abnormal. It's something to be talked about and there's help for that. So, thank you for sharing that story today. We really appreciate 

Sheree Santos: You're welcome.

Darrin Godin: And thank you all for joining us for Talking Hope today. We hope you'll join us on the next episode. Until next time.