Wellness Tips

Triple-negative breast cancer survivor finds success with integrative medicine

Jewel Johnson was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in December 2019 at age 57. She’d visited her primary care physician in Houston after feeling a lump in her breast, and the biopsy results confirmed it was cancer.

At the time, Jewel hadn’t heard of triple-negative breast cancer, and she didn’t feel like her physicians were giving her the information she needed.

“I didn’t feel comfortable because I felt rushed and nothing was being explained to me,” she says.

Soon after her diagnosis, Jewel called a friend to discuss her situation. A friend of the friend overhead their conversation.

“I’d never seen or met this woman, but she told my friend to tell me to get off the phone and go online and make an appointment at MD Anderson,” says Jewel. “From there, my story only got better.”

Triple-negative breast cancer treatment

It turns out the woman who advised Jewel to seek treatment at MD Anderson was an employee there and also a breast cancer survivor. She knew Jewel would receive the best cancer care at MD Anderson.

Breast medical oncologist David Ramirez, M.D., breast surgeon Puneet Singh, M.D., plastic surgeon Mark Clemens, M.D., and breast radiation oncologist Melissa Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., worked together to plan Jewel’s treatment, which included chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

Jewel started with 16 rounds of chemotherapy to help shrink her tumor. Then Singh and Clemens performed a lumpectomy and breast reconstruction surgery, respectively, on the same day. After that, she had six weeks of radiation therapy, which she completed on Oct. 30, 2020.

Jewel enrolled in a clinical trial that looked at whether it was beneficial to shorten the duration of radiation therapy from six weeks to four weeks, but Jewel was assigned to the control group, which receives the standard six weeks.

“They’re still monitoring my treatment and looking for differences about how the body is affected,” she says. “I just want to be an advocate. Use me for whatever you need so that this disease can have more viable treatments.”

In August 2020, Jewel learned she was in remission.

Exploring Integrative Medicine at MD Anderson

Jewel credits MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center with helping her both during and after breast cancer treatment.

She learned about the Integrative Medicine Center when she first got to MD Anderson and took full advantage of its services.

Jewel experienced neutropenia, neuropathy and weight loss as side effects from treatment, but she says they weren’t bad at all and her care team helped ease the symptoms.

From her psychiatrist Rachel Lynn, M.D., to her massage therapist, to her nutritionist, to her psychologist Aimee Christie, Ph.D., everyone played an integral role in keeping her healthy – both physically and mentally.

Jewel’s massage therapy helped ease her neuropathy symptoms, and her nutritionist guided her on what to eat and how to eat, which helped with her weight loss during treatment.

“After meeting with Dr. Christie several times, she said I’d be a great candidate for the IM Healthy program,” says Jewel. “She was right.”

IM Healthy program helps Jewel make healthy changes

The Integrative Medicine Center’s IM Healthy program helps guide patients and survivors through behavior changes to improve their overall health. The group meets weekly, and meetings are led by a health psychologist.

“This program has been a godsend,” says Jewel. “We have our ups and downs, our cries and our laughs, but we all support one another.”

One aspect of the program is goal setting. Jewel’s goals included drinking more water and increasing her movement.

“With triple-negative breast cancer, there’s no medicine you can take to keep recurrence at bay,” she says. “That’s where integrative medicine comes in. Nutrition. Exercise. Peace of mind. Sleep. That’s been my follow-up medicine for triple-negative breast cancer.”

Participation in the program has helped Jewel stay focused and learn how to deal with her emotions.

“When it’s time for scans, everybody’s rooting for you, praying for you, encouraging you,” she says. “I didn’t realize survivorship can be harder than going through the actual treatment. Without this program, I don’t know where I would have been in my survivorship journey.”

Not slowing down after triple-negative breast cancer treatment

Jewel shares recipes and wellness tips she’s learned with everybody.

“You don’t know who’s going to get cancer, so we want to prevent it upfront,” she says. “During radiation, I finally got the courage to post on social media, so I’d post my recipes and juices. I share with everyone I encounter.”

This includes her own family.

“I’d always been in relatively good health and worked out regularly, so I thought my transition to this healthier lifestyle after cancer would be easy, but it was harder than I expected, especially with other family members in my household,” says Jewel. “If I see my kids with fast food, I’m going to want it. But that’s why I stay in the IM Healthy program, so I always keep my focus.”

Since Jewel joined the program, her husband has also made some lifestyle changes, including eliminating red meat from his diet. He’s also learned how to cook healthy meals for her. 

Jewel is thankful for her support system, but she understands all patients don’t have one. She encourages other patients to advocate for themselves.

“After receiving my cancer diagnosis, I asked my previous doctor if they take a holistic approach and treat the whole person,” says Jewel. “He just looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about. But MD Anderson does that. They treat the whole person, not just the disease.”

Asking those types of questions helped Jewel identify the type of care she wanted and where to go to get it.

“Figure out what you need and ask questions,” she says. “Even if your oncologist can’t provide it, they will have the resources to help you. If it weren’t for Dr. Ramirez, Dr. Christie and the IM Healthy program, it would have been a lot more difficult to navigate my cancer treatment. They were phenomenal.”

Jewel recently enrolled in the IM Fit program, which focuses on lifestyle changes to promote slow weight loss. She plans on participating in as many programs as possible because she knows survivorship is a lifelong journey.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

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