In February 2016, just two months before her oldest daughter’s wedding, Martha McMurry got the news in a phone call.
Her routine mammogram showed she had cancer.
“To hear you have any type of cancer is life-altering,” McMurry said. “I will always remember where I was.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, McMurry went to the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion to meet the team who would oversee her treatment—a surgeon, oncologist, radiologist and others.
The process began with a lumpectomy in March to remove the cancer, and she was scheduled to begin chemotherapy in early April, which would eventually be followed by 21 rounds of radiation therapy.
Fortunately, the doctors agreed to delay the chemotherapy until four days after the wedding.
“I had a really tough time with chemo,” McMurry said. “I lost my hair after the first round, and that was truly probably the hardest thing. It was absolutely horrifying the day I came out of the shower and my hair came out in clumps.”
‘I felt a little funny’
Because McMurry’s breast cancer was HER2-positive, which tends to grow and spread faster than other types, her doctors elected Herceptin, a targeted drug therapy that attacks the HER2 protein on breast cancer cells.
Before treatments began, she had an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart, to confirm her heart was healthy. The test measured her ejection fraction, which is the amount of blood pumped by the heart with every heartbeat.
“Herceptin targets cancer cells, but it can also affect the heart,” said cardiologist Wissam Abdallah, MD, FACC. He is part of the Spectrum Health Cardio-Oncology Clinic, which manages and treats cancer patients who develop side effects affecting their heart.
“About 5 to 20 percent of patients might be affected to some extent,” Abdallah said.
McMurry started out with a healthy heart, and every three months, she had another echocardiogram.
She didn’t give it a lot of thought. Even last February, when her heart “felt a little funny,” she didn’t mention it to anyone.
Then, during a chemo treatment at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, she made on offhand comment to her nurse, who took immediate action.
After an in-office electrocardiogram, a staff member wheeled her across Michigan Avenue to the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center to be sure that funny feeling didn’t indicate a heart attack.
“Once again, I was scared to death,” McMurry said.
Fortunately, it was just a warning sign.
“We were able to identify early damage from the Herceptin, and then prevent further damage by starting heart medications,” Dr. Abdallah said. With heart medications, she was able to continue her cancer treatment uninterrupted.
Left untreated, she would have been at risk for further heart damage and, potentially, heart failure.
Today her heart medications, a beta blocker and an ACE inhibitor, are doing their jobs.
“I’ve had one or two echocardiograms since then,” McMurry said. “My heart is definitely rebounding to where it needs to be.”
‘Get your mammogram’
McMurry is passionate about fighting breast cancer. She’s met many other breast cancer patients during fundraising walks, and she has coffee with a circle of these new friends every month.
Her advice for others?
“Get your mammogram. It cannot be stressed enough,” she said. “It ultimately may have saved my life.”