RESIDENCE: Brown County.
BREAST CANCER: Stage I tubular carcinoma in 1996; Stage I invasive ductal carcinoma, HER2-positive in 2006.
HUSBAND: Dennis ZeBell.
IN HER WORLD: Working as a part-time dental assistant at North Park Dentistry in Columbus and riding motorcycles.
When Judy ZeBell learned in 2006 that her breast cancer had returned, she didn’t want to know too many of the details or hear any of the worst-case scenarios.
Especially since her kind of cancer — HER2-positive, which accounts for about 20 percent of breast cancers — grows and spreads the fastest.
“I tried not to think about it, because that just creates tension and anxiety,” said ZeBell, who believes that stress makes the body less able to fight cancer. “So I just told the doctors to do what they had to do.”
HER2, or Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor2, is a gene in the DNA of each normal breast cell that helps the cell grow. The gene contains information for making the HER2 protein. In HER2-positive breast cancer, the cells have too many HER2 genes, and the excess protein is thought to make cancer cells grow and divide more quickly, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Anita Conte, who works at the cancer center at Columbus Regional Hospital, said very effective, targeted treatments have made HER2 breast cancers some of the most successfully treatable.
“It has become one of the better types (of cancer) to have because we have such effective treatments,” she said.
Today, all breast cancers are tested for the HER2 gene, but ZeBell doesn’t know whether her first breast cancer in 1996 was tested or not. She was diagnosed at age 42 through a mammogram with Stage I tubular carcinoma in her right breast and was treated with a lumpectomy and radiation.
In 2006, she noticed a lump in the same breast during a self exam but was uncertain whether she was feeling scar tissue since she’d had a mammogram just six months earlier. A biopsy confirmed that it was Stage I invasive ductal carcinoma that was HER2-positive.
ZeBell and her husband, Dennis, were in the early stages of having a cabin built in Brown County and initially planned to cancel the project. But she decided that she was going to keep her mind off of cancer by carrying on with her regular life: picking out trim, doors and mowing the grass.
ZeBell underwent six weeks of chemotherapy, a year-and-a-half of Herceptin treatments — which target HER2 cancer cells — and a mastectomy. She had reconstructive surgery in November 2007, but two months later the incision opened and an infection forced doctors to remove the prosthetic implant.
Despite everything she’d been through, ZeBell said the “hardest blow” came in February 2009 when Dennis lost his job of 31 years.
She told her doctors that without insurance, she would have to stop taking Arimidex — a drug that starves HER2 cancers of estrogen and costs $386 per month. Fortunately, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca agreed to provide it for free.
Dennis started a new job in Franklin in August, and Judy continues with annual blood tests to make sure she’s cancer-free. She eats healthier and tries to limit her stress, but doesn’t spend much time wondering whether the cancer will come back.
“I could just as easily get in a wreck today,” she said. “I just leave it in God’s hands.”
Judy said battling breast cancer has strengthened her faith, and her marriage.
The best advice she has for others with cancer?
“You’ve got to be positive, and surround yourself with positive people. And don’t be afraid of all the worst-case stories people will tell you. Everybody’s different, so form your own opinion.”
One in five breast cancers have too much of a protein called HER2/neu. Tumors with this increased level of HER2/neu are called HER2-positive.
These cancers tend to grow and spread faster than other breast cancers. HER2-positive cancers can be treated with drugs that target the HER2/neu protein.
The American Cancer Society recommends HER2/neu testing for all newly diagnosed breast cancers.
— Source: The American Cancer Society.