Tawana Reynolds was 44 years old. She lived with her husband of nine years, and her two children who were then five and six years old. Her mother had just moved in.
Between raising her children, caring for her mom and working, Tawana was constantly on the go. She wasn't even thinking about breast cancer.
When Tawana went in for her annual mammogram, the physician noticed that some cells were clustering, forming a tumor. He had her come back for a second mammogram, and then took a biopsy.
"He said he wasn't worried, but we should do the biopsy so I could rest easy," Tawana recalled.
But 48 hours later, Tawana received a phone call that would change everything: She had breast cancer.
Getting the News
Tawana remembers her physician saying "there are some good things, and there are some things that we are worried about." It was at that point Tawana knew her life was about to change.
"The news threw me for a loop. I don't think I heard any of the good things he said after that," she said. "All I could think was, 'I'm going to die.'
Breaking the News
After her diagnosis, the first thing Tawana did was call her husband.
"He has always been the calming factor," she said. "He was at work, but I needed him to come home right away so I wouldn't crack in front of my mother and children."
Tawana was right — her husband knew exactly what to say. He reassured her that they were going to get through her treatment and recovery and suggested Tawana get a second opinion.
Tawana had been diagnosed at a local hospital, but her sister-in-law, a Penn Medicine nurse, scheduled appointments for her with Liza Wu, MD, a surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Penn, and Julia Tchou, MD, a physician and Director of Breast Surgery Research. Tawana calls them her "Asian Dream Team."
The next step was opening up to her friends and family — and their reaction was just as strong as Tawana's.
"Just like me, their first reaction was, 'Tawana's going to die,'" she recounted. "You would have thought they were the ones diagnosed with something.
"I ended up being the comforter, wiping their tears and explaining that I was going to be all right."
Tests and Treatment
Right away, Tawana was impressed with her care team.
"When I met Dr. Tchou, she was like a warm glass of milk before bed. She had a great bedside manner, and knew how to put me at ease immediately," she said.
Dr. Tchou gave Tawana every treatment option possible. She also offered a more thorough explanation of her diagnosis: ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a common and usually very treatable form of breast cancer.
For her treatment, Tawana chose to have a mastectomy, which was followed by a surgery called deep inferior epigastric perforators (DIEP) flap, where surgeons took skin, fat and blood vessels from her abdomen to rebuild her breasts.
Because Tawana's cancer was at stage 0 — abnormal cells were found in the lining of the breast milk duct but had not spread into the surrounding breast tissue — she didn't need radiation or chemotherapy after her mastectomy.
Once she chose to have surgery, Tawana felt at ease.
"I was empowered," she said. "I was no longer worried. I knew that I was going to be OK after that point."
The Dream Team
If Dr. Tchou was a glass of warm milk, Dr. Wu was a shot of tequila, Tawana said with a laugh.
"You can tell that she's smart and meticulous," she said. "Dr. Tchou was the one who calmed me, and Dr. Wu was the one who prepared me. It was a good balance."
Tawana cannot imagine working with any other hospital or physician.
"I was more than a patient," she said. "They made me feel like family. Doctors, nurses, technicians, therapists — everyone took care of me. Even the valet."
Time for Surgery
For Tawana, the morning of surgery was one of the most stressful parts of the treatment process. The surgeon marked her body indicating where cuts would be made and she was hooked up to an IV line.
As Tawana headed into the 10-hour procedure, the fact that she was about to have surgery finally hit her.
"They had me walk to the operating table, in a cold room full of metal," she said. "That was the only part of the process where I was shaking."
But Dr. Tchou and her team managed to get Tawana relaxed. One team member came over to her and said, "I just want you to tell me about the best trip you've ever taken." As she recounted her trip to Mexico where she went zip lining, Tawana drifted off to sleep.
The Road to Recovery
Dr. Wu came in after surgery and was surprised to find Tawana sitting up, smiling and laughing.
"I wasn't in a bad mood," Tawana said. "There would be a recovery process, but the worst was now behind me."
Recovery began right away. Tawana stayed in the hospital for five days, working with occupational therapists, physical therapists, physicians and nurses. She had to undergo one more procedure to remove lymph nodes, but each node came back cancer-free.
Even though the tests had only revealed a lump in her right breast, she decided to get both breasts removed. It was a good idea — her physicians discovered that she did have cancer in both breasts, but the test didn't pick one up cancer in one of them.
"That saved me a lot of treatment down the road," she said. "I'm now seven years' cancer-free, and I probably wouldn't be, had I not gotten a double mastectomy."
Another part of recovery was telling her then-7-year-old daughter about the surgery. Tawana had been hesitant about how much information to share.
"She asked why my breasts looked different, so I had to tell her I had cancer. She was scared, but I told her I would be OK," Tawana said. "And I found this fantastic book that helped me explain it."
Once her daughter understood, she was eager to help. As Tawana puts it, she became a protector of her mother.
Lending a Helping Hand
Today, Tawana has been cancer-free for seven years. She is very active, doing the things she loved to do before her diagnosis, like running and spin classes.
Cancer has also changed her into someone who always appreciates life.
"I am grateful for the little things that shape you into the person that you will eventually become," she said.
Although Tawana is cancer-free, breast cancer is still part of her life — in a good way. As a survivor, she uses her experience to help others.
"The best part of this experience is that whenever someone has a friend who is diagnosed with breast cancer, they call me immediately, and I go into help mode," she said.
One of the most memorable experiences is when she went to visit someone in recovery. The woman was being treated by Dr. Wu, and she was in the same hospital room Tawana once occupied.
"It let me know that I was supposed to be helping her," Tawana said. "I am supposed to help anyone through this process. I love that anybody can pick up the phone and know I'll answer, and that I'll be there."