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Having chemotherapy before surgery meant Kéara Richardson (above) could keep her breasts.
When Kéara Richardson was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at just 37, she feared her life would never be the same again. But Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) offered her an innovative treatment that puts chemotherapy before breast cancer surgery. This approach, called neoadjuvant chemotherapy, has both eradicated Kéara’s disease and maintained her quality of life.
The legal professional learned in 2021 that she had triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive type that has a higher incidence in younger Black women. After being diagnosed at another institution, Kéara quickly transferred her care to MSK, where she met with breast surgical oncologist Tracy-Ann Moo.
She appreciated being able to see Dr. Moo at MSK Nassau, a 15-minute drive from her home on Long Island.
Dr. Moo vividly remembers their first appointment. “She was this young, vibrant person, there with her dad,” she says. “She was scared but had this positivity about her that you knew she would do what it took to treat her cancer and move on with her life, which is what we’re there to help her do.”
The experience at MSK was “like night and day” compared with her other experience, Kéara says. “I felt like there were people who cared about me as a person.”
The treatment plan Dr. Moo recommended was different from what Kéara was expecting. At the first institution, she was told she would need surgery, then chemotherapy, then radiation. But at MSK, Dr. Moo told her that having chemotherapy before surgery could shrink the tumor, and as a result, Kéara would probably not need a mastectomy.
“We knew based on the type of tumor she had that she would need chemotherapy as a part of her breast cancer treatment,” says Dr. Moo. “If we used it ahead of surgery, we’d be more likely to preserve her breasts.”
Chemotherapy given before surgery is known as neoadjuvant chemotherapy. It’s an exciting advance in treatment — one that MSK is able to offer more and more women with breast cancer these days, Dr. Moo says.
“Chemotherapy regimens have been getting better and better,” she says. “We know that in some cases neoadjuvant chemotherapy can get rid of all of the tumor in the breast and lymph nodes, so when it’s time for surgery, we’re not doing as big a procedure.”
When Kéara started chemo, she had a remarkable response in just a week or two. “After my first treatment,” she says, “I could no longer feel the lump.”
Dr. Moo worked closely with Kéara’s medical oncologist, Julia Brockway-Marchello, and radiation oncologist, Michael Bernstein, to ensure each aspect of her care went smoothly. All three practice at MSK Nassau.
“We all are down the hall from each other,” says Dr. Moo. “I remember Dr. Brockway-Marchello coming to my office, saying, ‘Hey, Kéara’s having this dramatic response to the chemo.’ We always communicate while our patients are being treated so that we are always on the same page.”
Dr. Moo was also a trusted source of information about COVID-19, Kéara says. She was hesitant about getting vaccinated but decided to do so after talking about it with Dr. Moo.
Kéara says, “There was this comfort of being able to speak to her and have her ease my concerns that I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to get it.’ ”
During surgery, Dr. Moo didn’t find any lingering tumor cells and was able to conserve Kéara’s breasts, just as she had hoped. Kéara then completed four weeks of radiation therapy to further make sure the cancer was gone for good. It was the easiest part of her therapy, she says: “I was in my car more than in the treatment room!”
Celebrating little victories kept her motivated. A dancer since childhood, Kéara marked treatment milestones with the same concept of dancing. “It was step-by-step-by-step,” she says. “We got a good CT scan? We take that win. We learn the cancer isn’t in my lymph nodes? We take that win.”
Kéara completed active treatment December 2021 and has regular follow-up appointments with her MSK care team. She recently took a trip with her friends to Costa Rica, and she’s still running the passion company she founded, KOR Values, which encourages teens and young adults to make positive lifestyle choices. Knowing her selfless spirit, it comes as no surprise that Kéara wants to pay it forward by sharing her story. “I haven’t publicly had the conversation, but this puts it out there,” she says. “The goal is to help someone else.”
It can be hard for many patients to see beyond treatment, says Dr. Moo. “But I tell them, ‘I’ve taken care of hundreds of people with breast cancer, and I know a year from now you’re going to come in smiling and happy.’ ”
Kéara is already on her way. “I’m figuring out what life looks like for me moving forward,” she says. “I can’t go back to how everything was before cancer, but I started 2022 on a fresh note.”