When Yvonne Frazier was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2019, she had three school-age children, a 2-year-old toddler, and a full-time job.
She also had options.
Lawrence General Hospital, where Frazier works, is 30 miles and an hour in traffic from the major cancer centers of Boston. It was next door, however, to a Dana-Farber physician practice. This enabled Frazier to fit chemotherapy and other treatment around her work schedule, and still meet her kids at the bus stop and daycare center each day.
“Having Dana-Farber right here in my community made all the difference in the world,” says Frazier, 34. “As a working mom, with financial challenges to think about, going to Boston just wasn’t feasible. This was where I needed to be, for me and my kids.”
As a nurse’s aide in a surgical unit that treats cancer patients, Frazier already knew several of her Dana-Farber caregivers. She had seen the kindness they gave others; now she was on the receiving end.
Leading the team was oncologist Pedro Sanz-Altamira, MD, PhD.
“He was amazing, always making me feel like I was his only patient,” says Frazier. “I had full faith in Dr. Sanz-Altamira, from beginning to end.”
Confidence gained and given
In addition to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, Frazier faced another big challenge.
After the lump she discovered during a self-exam was confirmed to be stage II breast cancer, she was hesitant to share the news with her children — then 15, 12, 8, and 2. Her youngest son was still in diapers, and Frazier worried that if she didn’t recover, he would not remember her.
“My boyfriend, mother, and sister knew, but I wouldn’t tell my little ones anything until I could tell them everything,” says Frazier. “I didn’t want to keep them in limbo. I wanted to be able to say ‘Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, but this is the plan. This is what I’m going to have to go through for the next year.’”
Once she did tell her children, Frazier settled into a regular routine. She would work three days, go in for chemotherapy on Thursday, and then take a week to recover from the side effects. Her boss and colleagues at Lawrence General partnered with her and her Dana-Farber care team to make the schedule work.
“If I was feeling awful, I could call my nurse practitioner and she would get me in right away,” says Frazier. “Everybody was so attentive. You felt like it was all about you, and what they could do to help you.”
She admits there were a few lucky breaks along the way. Her kids, it turned out, liked Frazier better bald than with long hair — making that oft-difficult part of parenting through cancer much easier. All four children also proved adept at giving their mom hand massages, much-needed after a long day at work or treatment.
“We are very fortunate to be able to care for patients near their homes, to try to bring the institution to the patient rather than the patient to the institution,” says Sanz-Altamira. “It has been a pleasure to treat Yvonne and mainly to see that she now has a good prognosis.”
As she became more confident about her own recovery, Frazier began passing on that confidence to others.
“Work became therapeutic for me,” she explains. “I would see other young women who were diagnosed with breast cancer and having surgery, and share my journey with them. I’d say, ‘Look, I know exactly what you’re going through, because I am literally walking in your shoes.’ I knew the emotions they were feeling, because I felt them too.”
‘Hope when I was hopeless’
Near the end of Frazier’s active treatment, she received a special honor.
Dana-Farber had united its practice sites in Lawrence and neighboring Methuen into one outpatient location: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – Merrimack Valley, less than 10 minutes from Frazier’s home and workplace.
When she was invited to be a patient speaker at the opening event for Dana-Farber – Merrimack Valley on Jan. 28, 2020, a day before the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Frazier was able to bring along four special guests. Even though it was a school night.
“Being here, local, means a lot to our community,” Frazier told the crowd. “I needed to have treatment and still be able to come home and be a mom. Dana-Farber gave me hope when I was hopeless.”
Learn more about treatment for breast cancer from the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.