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UnityPoint Health - Des Moines

Michelle Sherzan

The John Stoddard Cancer Center Helped Her Beat Breast Cancer At Age 34

Michelle's Story: At the age of 34, Michelle Sherzan never thought she would be diagnosed with breast cancer. Thanks to a recommendation on the part of her family physician, however, Michelle not only learned that she had stage one breast cancer, but that she had inherited the BRCA1 gene that increases the risk for the disease.

As a newly married couple, Michelle and her husband, Gary, were excited about the prospects of having children together. So Michelle, then 34, went to see her family physician, to have a preconception check-up." Because of my risk factors, a paternal grandmother had breast cancer and because I was almost 35 years old and had not yet been pregnant, my family practice physician, Kathryn J. Lindgren, DO, recommended that I go ahead and get a mammogram," Michelle says. "I almost 'blew it off,' but my husband encouraged me to follow the doctor's suggestion. I'm so glad that I did."

Coping with the News

In late March of 2006, Michelle went to Iowa Radiology for her baseline mammogram. When she was called back for a repeat mammogram the next week, Michelle was terrified.

"I took my husband with me for the mammogram, and the radiologist explained that I had calcium deposits in my breast and would need a needle biopsy performed right away," Michelle remembers. "I was very scared, but I had the biopsy and went home."

The next day-April 5-is a day Michelle will remember for the rest of her life. On that day, the radiologist who performed the needle biopsy, Jill S. Westercamp, MD, called and told Michelle the news she never wanted to hear: She had breast cancer.

"I handed the phone to my husband and totally shut down," Michelle remembers. "Even though the cancer was in its earliest stages and totally treatable, I lost it. I was overwhelmed with emotions, and I was numb and in denial. I didn't know what to do."

On April 10, Michelle had her first appointment with Daniel Kollmorgen, MD, surgical oncologist with The Iowa Clinic, who told her she probably wouldn't need any chemotherapy or radiation because the cancer was in its earliest stages. However, during her surgery at Iowa Methodist to remove the calcium deposits, Dr. Kollmorgen found a popcorn kernel-sized cancerous lump that hadn't shown up on Michelle's mammogram. That lump was removed a few days later, and Michelle opted for six weeks of radiation therapy as a precaution. 

Since that time, Michelle has been cancer free.

Is It Genetic?

Though Michelle had heard about genetic testing for cancer, she never considered having the blood test performed until her surgeon told her about it. Michelle decided to meet with Pati Berger, RN, BSN, OCN, oncology research coordinator for the John Stoddard Cancer Center to learn about her options.

After meeting with Berger, Michelle still wasn't sure if she wanted to have the test performed, but she went ahead and filled out the paperwork to get it pre-approved by her insurance company, just in case. Her pre-approval certification came through in June-yet it was almost six months later before she decided to go through with the test.

"I needed time to figure out what I would do if the result came back positive, because I didn't know how it would influence my decision to have children," Michelle remembers. "In the end, I decided it was something I needed to know for myself."

Learning Her Risk

At John Stoddard, physicians are able to do the simple blood test that can identify patients who are carriers of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations, which significantly increase that patient's risk of developing breast or ovarian cancers.

"When a mutation is present in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, women have an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer during their lifetimes, as compared to a 12 percent risk for women without the mutation," Berger says. "That's why it's so important that genetic counseling is performed before and after the test. We can talk to the patient and help her understand exactly what ramifications this gene mutation could have for family members."

While genetic testing certainly isn't required for all breast cancer patients, patients should consider meeting with the oncology research coordinator and learning about genetic testing options if they have several close relatives diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50, if men in their family are diagnosed with male breast cancer or if they're diagnosed with several types of cancer that are unrelated.

"By identifying mutations on BRCA1 and BRCA2, physicians can give those carriers a realistic outlook on their risk of cancer," Berger says. "They can then work closely with their doctors to develop more intense screening programs and discuss preventive measures that could begin years earlier than is necessary for the general population."

Living Life to the Fullest

After learning that she does carry the BRCA1 genetic mutation, Michelle met with her oncologist and discussed her options. Her oncologist told her there was no reason she shouldn't have children. Michelle's decision to get screened allowed her to be aware of the situation so she-and her future children-could be more closely monitored.

"Carrying the BRCA1 gene means that I have a 20 percent chance of having breast cancer again within five years, so I have a mammogram every six months," Michelle says. "Learning that I carry this gene is scary, but it's put my life in perspective, and I try to be healthier and have a more positive outlook on life."

For more information about genetic testing or the John Stoddard Cancer Center, call (515) 241-4141 or visit the web site of the John Stoddard Cancer Center.