How a breast cancer diagnosis transformed working mom into community advocate
It was like any other Sunday morning for the young Sowa family from Mount Angel, Ore., when mom, Heather, 35, found a lump on her left breast while showering before church.
“I was in a state of total shock,” recalled Sowa, who is the clinic manager of Legacy Medical Group–Mount Angel. “I had insignificant family history and I was only 35 years old, so breast cancer was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Upon undergoing an exam by her primary care physician, an ultra sound, a biopsy, two lumpectomies and a left mastectomy, Heather learned of her need for chemotherapy treatment. She began bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments a few days after Christmas 2015 and continued through May 2016 for a total of six and a half months of treatment. Sowa then underwent DIEP flap breast reconstruction.
“My family at Silverton and now Legacy Health have supported me on every step of this journey,” said Sowa. “Colleagues from across the organization continually stepped in and asked what could be done. I can’t imagine getting that level of support anywhere else.”
"Heather gives leading with courage an entire different meaning. She smiled everyday through pain, losing her hair, and she maintained a positive attitude. It is amazing what the human spirit is capable of," said Melinda Avila, public and community relations consultant at Legacy Health who has worked with Sowa for several years.
Today, Sowa is two and a half years out from her diagnosis and continues an extensive after-treatment regimen, which includes getting a mammogram every three months; taking a daily oral anti-estrogen medication for ten years; and receiving an anti-estrogen injections four times per year. She also sees a Jaqueline Vuky, M.D., a breast specialty medical oncologist at the Legacy Good Samaritan location of the OHSU Knight-Legacy Health Cancer Collaborative every three months.
“We’ve developed a relationship and I’m truly grateful to have a forward thinking and innovative oncologist who manages clinical trials. She’s inspired me to share my experience and to support others in similar circumstances,” continued Sowa.
Through her diagnosis, Sowa has found her voice as a breast cancer advocate in her hometown of Mount Angel by staying on top of the latest in breast cancer research; raising funds for breast cancer research with her family; and by speaking out about important issues women with breast cancer commonly face.
Sowa is a team captain and committee member for the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of the Silver Falls Area. The entire Sowa family and her colleagues at Legacy Medical Group – Mount Angel actively fundraise for Relay for Life throughout the year by organizing donation-only yard sales; collecting cans and bottles; selling baked goods, salsa and hand-made wares; hosting waffle breakfasts; and walking in the Silverton Pet Parade decked in purple and carrying a donation can for the event.
Sowa has also delivered the keynote address at multiple Relay for Life events in the Silverton Falls Area during and after treatment.
“By speaking out about my experience and the lessons I have learned, I hope to empower my community to take charge of their health and support others who may be battling breast cancer or the after-treatment side effects,” explained Sowa.
Sowa focuses her outreach on the importance of monthly breast self-examinations for women of all ages; managing the debilitating side effects of treatment; and how to safely store medication throughout treatment. She stays engaged on these topics by regularly attending conferences sponsored by Legacy Cancer Institute such as the Excellence in Breast and Gynecologic Care seminar coming up on November and other community partners such as the Susan J. Komen Foundation.
For more information about Legacy Cancer Institute’s breast health services, click here.
For media-related questions, contact Megan Deisler.