Local Breast Cancer Patients Find Support at Allegheny Health Network’s Home for Hope

By Stephanie Waite | Photograph by Chancelor Humphrey

Amanda Agwuocha and Allegheny Health Network’s Shivani Duggal, D.O.

Only about 5 percent of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women under age 40, but when a young woman does get breast cancer, she faces a set of unique challenges. There is no effective breast cancer screening tool for women under age 40, so their cancers tend to be aggressive, diagnosed at later stages, and more difficult to treat. Younger women are also likely to be working full-time jobs, often while simultaneously running a household and caring for children. The impact of cancer treatments on fertility is a big concern for women who hope to have children in the future.

Amanda Agwuocha of Brighton Heights was just 35 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She first noticed something amiss while breastfeeding her youngest child. When she looked at her breasts in the mirror, she could see something was very wrong.

The mother of four was diagnosed at Stage 3, meaning the cancer had spread but had not yet metastasized. Even with strong support from her husband, family and friends, Amanda was not spared the stress and worry that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis.

She found help at the Home for Hope at Allegheny Health Network (AHN)’s Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion, an outreach to young breast cancer patients funded by local breast cancer advocacy and fundraising organization Glimmer of Hope.

Home for Hope uses integrated medicine techniques to help younger breast cancer patients cope with the disease and minimize any stressors that may hinder their recovery, offering acupuncture, massage therapy, and nutrition counseling. Patients can also take advantage of free child care at Austin’s Playroom at the Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion, and if necessary, transportation to appointments via the Glimmer of Hope van or the Uber driver service.

Nnenna, 10; Toben, 2; Amara, 7; and Olanna, 5. Photograph from Amanda Agwuocha

Its pilot program opened in 2016, and the 10 open slots were quickly filled. Because of the response, Glimmer of Hope agreed to expand the program in early 2017, opening it up to even more patients. “Unfortunately, we are seeing an increasing number of premenopausal women with advanced breast cancer, and as their numbers continue to rise, so will the need for the program,” says AHN breast surgeon Shivani Duggal, D.O., who oversees the program along with gastroenterologist Sandra El-Hachem, M.D., and breast surgeon Mary Beth Malay, M.D.

So far, they have all received very positive feedback on Home for Hope. “Our patients say the program has been extremely beneficial, helping them reduce pain, discomfort, and stress,” Dr. Duggal says. “Patients particularly enjoy the massage therapy and nutrition counseling, and those who participated in acupuncture said it was very helpful in reducing the aftereffects of chemotherapy and surgery, such as pain and nausea.”

Amanda remembers how her first massage reduced her stress and worry, and helped her refocus on a positive attitude for her breast cancer fight. She also took advantage of acupuncture treatments to help her through the nausea caused by chemotherapy. She recently finished her last chemotherapy treatment, and today is cancer-free.

“It’s important for breast cancer patients to keep a positive outlook in order to keep stress at bay,” Dr. Duggal says. “We are grateful to Glimmer of Hope for making it possible for additional patients to enjoy the benefits of this great program.”

Diana Napper founded Glimmer of Hope after her best friend lost her battle with breast cancer in 1990. Glimmer of Hope works to support research and better screening modalities, with a special emphasis on helping younger breast cancer patients. “All of us at Glimmer of Hope are delighted to hear about how young women like Amanda are benefiting from Home for Hope,” Napper says. “We are honored to have the opportunity to meet their unique needs.”

To schedule an appointment with an AHN oncologist, call 412.DOCTORS or  visit ahn.org/find-a-doctor.

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