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When Cancer Care Means More Than Chemotherapy

Faria on her graduation day in 2023

Patient Story

When Cancer Care Means More Than Chemotherapy

At Mass General Cancer Center’s Waltham, Mass. location, Faria Noor — newly married and about to finish graduate school — found everything she needed to face a breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and return to health.

Kelsey Abbruzzese
January 18, 2024

Life was looking up for Faria Noor. She had come to the U.S. from Bangladesh as an international student, working toward her master’s degree in human factors and information design at Bentley University. While she was in school, she met Kashif, and the couple married two months before Faria was scheduled to graduate. But, soon after the wedding, Faria discovered a lump in her breast. The lump turned out to be cancer.

“Where I was from, there wasn’t a culture of self-checking, and I didn’t have a family history,” Faria says. “I thought there was no way I could have cancer.”

What followed was a whirlwind of the traditional steps in cancer treatment: biopsies, chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. But, as Faria found her way to breast cancer specialist Jeffrey Peppercorn, MD, MPH, and his team at Mass General Cancer Center’s location in Waltham, Mass., she had access to more than typical treatments. With support in fertility, genetic testing, nutrition, social work and other specialties and services, Faria found everything she needed to manage this unexpected curveball in her life so filled with promise.

“Comprehensive supportive care — treating the whole person, not just the cancer — is essential to give patients the best outcomes and help them maintain and improve their quality of life, despite the rigors and complexity of modern cancer therapy,” says Dr. Peppercorn, who also serves as the Director of Supportive Care and Survivorship at the Cancer Center.

Faria and Kashif on their wedding day

Absorbing a New Reality

Once she discovered the lump, Faria visited a nurse practitioner at Bentley’s student clinic, who then set up an appointment at a Mass General Brigham partnering organization, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, for imaging and other tests. The ultrasounds and mammograms that caregivers set in motion became more in-depth than Faria expected. When they ordered a biopsy, the possibility of a cancer diagnosis came to the forefront. The call that she did indeed have breast cancer, at age 29, came on Nov. 15, 2022.

“From there, things moved quickly,” Faria says. “It was going so fast that I didn’t have time to process my emotions or think too much.”

The team at Newton-Wellesley Hospital referred Faria to Dr. Peppercorn and his team at Mass General Cancer Center in Waltham, and she began regular appointments there. Faria’s tumor was roughly the size of a lime and Dr. Peppercorn worried it had spread to other parts of her body. Fortunately, her initial scans at the Cancer Center were clear. But Faria raised another concern: she had just gotten married and she and her husband were hoping to start a family soon. The chemotherapy she needed to survive would impact her chances of becoming a mother.

“It felt like I was getting bad news right and left,” Faria says. “I was just trying to absorb it all. When I heard that the chemo would affect my fertility, I just broke down. It didn’t feel good to hear that my choices were being taken away from me.”

Reclaiming Her Choices

When Dr. Peppercorn learned about Faria’s desire to have a family one day, he quickly made an appointment with Rachel Ashby, MD, a specialist in reproductive endocrinology and fertility expert.  After that meeting, Dr. Ashby recommended preserving Faria’s eggs prior to starting chemotherapy. Faria’s egg retrieval procedure — collecting her eggs from her ovaries — took place on Dec. 7, 2022. She began her chemotherapy regimen on Dec. 8.

“I was so thankful we were able to do the egg preservation,” Faria says. “It was really important to me.”

“Everyone at the Cancer Center was so warm and welcoming — they went above and beyond. I felt like I could talk to them about any symptoms I was having and ask for suggestions, because I knew they were seeing the same with other patients. I felt safe in their care.”

The Cancer Center offered several other services that helped Faria physically and emotionally endure six rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy surgery with Michele Gadd, MD, at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and six weeks of radiation after surgery. Genetic testing revealed that Faria did not have a BRCA gene mutation, which would have increased her risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and that information reassured Faria’s mother and sister regarding their own risk. The chemotherapy diminished Faria’s appetite and made it difficult to drink, so the Center’s nutrition specialist offered advice on what could help with her energy and hydration levels. The Center also set up Faria with saline infusions to manage her dehydration, acupuncture to cope with side effects like hot flashes, and specialized sexual health services for cancer patients.

“Everyone at the Cancer Center was so warm and welcoming — they went above and beyond,” says Faria. “I felt like I could talk to them about any symptoms I was having and ask for suggestions, because I knew they were seeing the same with other patients. I felt safe in their care.”

Faria faced several financial challenges because she and Kashif were living on his income and she was an immigrant working through the legal process to transition from a student visa toward the appropriate immigration status to apply for full-time work. The Center’s social worker helped Faria with immigration resources, FMLA paperwork for Kashif and provided gas and grocery cards. Faria’s student health insurance also ended while she was in treatment, leaving her unable to afford the out-of-pocket expenses. The hospital assured her that unrestricted philanthropic contributions, raised through events like Mass General’s annual CenterStage Gala, would cover any bills not paid by insurance.

“Although I ended up enrolling with my husband’s insurance, which eventually covered the last part of my treatment, knowing that the hospital would help pay for bills that I am unable to cover through insurance was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” Faria says.

Faria on day one of her chemotherapy treatment

A Graduation Celebration

With her lumpectomy scheduled in May 2023 — 10 days before graduation — Faria wasn’t sure she could attend the ceremony. But her chemotherapy before surgery had delivered the best outcome possible: a complete response to preoperative treatment with no remaining invasive disease and no cancer in her lymph nodes. The day of graduation, Faria celebrated both her master’s degree and a successful surgery. After completing her radiation regimen, she still takes targeted therapy medications, but she says her life is looking up once again.

“My first meeting with Dr. Peppercorn seemed scary, because of the size of the tumor and the road ahead,” Faria says. “But whenever I see him, he always takes the time to answer all my questions. He was always on top of things and very patient in answering me. He really believed that I was going to be OK.”

“Every patient’s story is unique, but Faria’s experience really demonstrates our team approach to comprehensive and compassionate care at Mass General Cancer Center,” says Dr. Peppercorn. “Everyone contributed to meeting her needs and helped Faria through this difficult period and back to her life outside of the clinic. We are conscious every day of the privilege we have in working to make a difference in the lives of patients like Faria and her family.”

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