When Mary Richichi flew from Boston to Utah this summer to attend her grandson’s wedding, she made sure to pack her dancing shoes.
The 79-year-old was celebrating not only the happy couple’s big day, but the fact she was there to witness it, thanks to the Dana-Farber specialists who treated her breast cancer and are helping her manage a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
‘A whole different world’
Richichi’s life was already in upheaval when a routine mammogram discovered a tumor in the duct of her left breast in July 2009. Her husband, Frank, was ailing, so the couple was getting ready to move from Pleasant Valley, New York after 38 years to the Boston area to be near their daughters, Dana and Donna.
“It was already such a difficult time, and then I got hit with the diagnosis,” she says. “I was in complete shock; there was no history of breast cancer in my family. It was very traumatic.”
Her daughter Dana knew Dana-Farber well living in Boston. She immediately set up an appointment for her mother at Dana-Farber for soon after the big move in September. The Dana-Farber team followed up the four rounds of chemotherapy that Richichi had received in New York with a course of radiation at the Milford clinic.
“I was amazed by the Milford clinic,” Richichi says. “It was so neat and clean, and everyone was so friendly. It was a whole different world.”
After radiation, Richichi came under the care of Naeem Tahir, MD, an oncologist who specializes in blood disorders and who would become medical director of Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center – Foxborough, which opened in 2022.
“I liked him right away,” Richichi says. “He is so caring, so thorough and so attentive. I used to apologize for taking up his time but he said, ‘I always have time for you.’”
Tahir started Richichi on a five-year regimen of letrozole, an oral hormone therapy used to treat certain kinds of breast cancer.
“She had a hormone-receptor positive breast cancer, which can be treated with drugs like letrozole to decrease the risk of cancer coming back,” Tahir says. “She tolerated it very well and it likely helped her stay in remission.”
While Richichi’s breast cancer was under control, other health problems arose. She received a surprise diagnosis of hepatitis C, which her general practitioner traced to a blood transfusion she had when giving birth to her son in 1967. She started 16 weeks of interferon therapy — an injectable treatment for hepatitis C which is difficult to tolerate due to side effects, but was the only treatment available at that time — and had to have a blood transfusion.
She remembers one of her lowest points, a day when she’d promised to take two of her grandsons to a Halloween spirit shop.
“There were so excited about seeing all the costumes, but I was so exhausted that I had to sit by the store’s front door,” she says.
The flu-like symptoms vanished after a change in medication, but her blood levels remained stubbornly low, despite several transfusions.
Tahir diagnosed Richichi with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a bone marrow disorder in which blood cells don’t mature, resulting in low numbers of healthy, functioning red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Most MDS cases occur in people over the age of 60 and aren’t linked to any known causes. Around the same time, Richichi’s gastroenterologist determined that she also had gastric antral vascular ectasia (GAVE), an uncommon but often severe cause of upper gastrointestinal bleeding. The combination of these two conditions explained why her blood levels kept dropping.
‘I would follow him anywhere’
The two specialists dialed in on a treatment regimen that is still working well for Richichi a decade later. Every six months she has a procedure on her stomach to prevent abdominal bleeding. Under Tahir’s care, she receives regular iron infusions and shots of darbepoetin alfa, a hormone that signals the body to make more red blood cells.
“This treatment in certain situations can help maintain red blood count at a higher level, which helps improve energy and overall well-being of patients,” Tahir says. “She really did well with it and had a very good quality of life due to this treatment.”
When Tahir accepted the position of medical director at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center Foxborough, Richichi followed him to the new facility.
“Dr. Tahir is so amazing that I would follow him anywhere,” Richichi says. “But the new clinic is so magnificent. It’s so welcoming. They give you a computer clip to wear onsite so that they can easily find you. The infusion center has individual rooms for privacy. And Dr. Tahir is always available when you need him.”
Her health and energy restored, Richichi is a woman on the go. After her husband’s passing in 2016, she moved into a retired living community.
“It’s like living on a cruise ship,” she says. “There’s always something to do and somebody to do it with.”
She enjoys attending plays in Providence and Boston. She watches her youngest grandchildren in their soccer matches and track meets. And when her grandson Jack announced his wedding would be in Utah, she scheduled a side trip to Las Vegas, too.
“I had a ball,” she says. “All of these things I couldn’t do before, and now I can because of Dana-Farber and Dr. Tahir.”