It was a Friday morning in March of 2022 when Shannon Egan, a nurse in the Internal Medicine Unit at UConn Health, woke up with discomfort in her breast and felt a lump. She had a five-month-old baby at home and thought it could have been a clogged milk duct, but with a history of breast cancer in her family, she wasn’t taking a chance and reached out to her doctor.
Her OB/GYN saw her that day and sent her for an ultrasound that afternoon. The radiologist recommended a biopsy which she had the following week. She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ in her left breast and triple-negative in her right breast.
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast. DCIS is considered the earliest form of breast cancer. DCIS is noninvasive, meaning it hasn’t spread out of the milk duct and has a low risk of becoming invasive. Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) accounts for 10-15% of all breast cancers. The term triple-negative breast cancer refers to the fact that the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors (ER or PR) and don’t make any or too much of the protein called HER2. (The cells test “negative” on all 3 tests.) These cancers tend to be more common in women younger than age 40, who are Black, or who have a BRCA1 mutation.
Since her maternal grandmother had passed from breast cancer Egan had a baseline mammogram and bilateral breast ultrasound when she was 35 years old which was negative. The next year in October 2021, she had a baby and at her annual Ob/Gyn appointment in November of 2021, her doctor performed a thorough breast exam and had no concerns. She found the lump in March of 2022 and at that time it was over 2 cm. “It is so scary how quickly it grew,” says Egan.
Finding breast cancer early and getting state-of-the-art cancer treatment are two of the most important strategies for preventing deaths from breast cancer. Breast cancer that’s found early, when it’s small and has not spread, is easier to treat successfully. Getting regular screening tests is the most reliable way to find breast cancer early.
Mammograms are recommended annually for women when they turn 40, however, those recommendations may be different for those who are at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors they should get a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30 or based on the recommendation from their provider.
“It is really scary because most breast cancers detected these days have no connection to family history at all,” says Egan “Cancer does not discriminate.”
Egan went through multiple scans and biopsies, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, and immunotherapy infusions every three weeks. Following that she had a bilateral mastectomy with deep inferior epigastric artery perforator (DIEP) reconstruction, a common technique where skin and tissue from the abdomen are used to reconstruct the breast. This surgery took place over nine hours and was followed by 25 rounds of radiation. She has now been cancer-free for just over a year.
“I feel very cautiously optimistic. If triple-negative cancer is going to recur, it’s usually within the first three years. That is frightening to me,” says Egan. “Physically, I have many side effects from immunotherapy, chemo, and radiation that I’m trying to sort through. Mentally, I go through many different emotions throughout the day.”
“Most people in their 30s and 40s don’t think about cancer, we’re protected by the notion that we’re “too young to worry” about it, but I think that is what is so powerful and frightening about Shannon’s story – she is so young, at the time of being diagnosed had a five month old and toddler at home, and the unimaginable happened” says Alexandra Schmitt, university director, UConn Medical Group.
Egan credits her husband for helping her through this time as well as friends, family, and colleagues.
“Hands down, I could not have done any of this without my amazing husband. He is the strongest person I know. He was there for me for every appointment, every chemo, every scan. He immediately just took our entire life and children into his control and handled it all. My family is amazing, helping out with the kids, meals, errands, and emotional support. I had so many friends, family members, colleagues, and some people that I barely even knew rooting for me and praying for me, sending me uplifting cards and gifts. It is so overwhelming to even think about how much love and support I felt and continue to feel,” says Egan.
“What moves me about Shannon is her courageousness; she said when you are so exhausted and so sick, everything hurts, you just wake up and keep going. It’s that mindset, it’s the nurse mindset, the mom mindset, to survive and persevere and do what you have to do. She is incredibly courageous and a testament to survivors,” says Schmitt. “She’s a wonderful nurse and we’re so thankful to have her here with us.”
Egan now considers herself part of this “club” that she never asked to be a part of, but has met so many other inspirational women and men who are part of the same “club”. As a nurse, she feels she understands patients who have or survived cancer on a different level that is indescribable. It has taught her to be kind to everyone, never knowing what people are going through.
Egan is an advocate that others do their self-breast exams and be diligent in getting their annual mammograms and other preventative exams.
“Get to know your body and if there are changes, don’t ignore them, and brush it off as ‘it’s probably nothing’ get it checked out,” says Egan. “Early detection is key and saves lives.”
“Shannon is a nurse, a mother, a survivor and so much more,” says Anne Horbatuck vice president, Ambulatory Services and chief operating officer, UConn Medical Group. “She has been courageous strong and a role model for so many, sharing her personal story and how early detection saved her life.”
“Overall, I’m simply grateful to be able to go home to my husband and two beautiful daughters at the end of the day,” says Egan.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month serves as a reminder to get your annual mammogram. If you have not yet had your annual mammogram or do not have one scheduled for this year, call 860-679-2784 today to schedule one.