11:39pm Sunday 29 March 2020

A cop who won’t let breast cancer hold her back

Holly Wasilewski is back protecting the neighborhood where she has been a model community police officer.

(October 2011) Police Officer Holly Wasilewski used to sit in her patrol car outside the Chinese restaurant where she picked up her lunch, watching the construction of Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. Never once did she think she’d be a patient there. Then one Saturday, months after the hospital opened, she was taking a shower and discovered two hard lumps in her right breast.

She was 44, the district manager in a New Haven police substation in the Hill—the neighborhood that this year had the city’s highest homicide rate. She had a master’s in forensic science and was a model community-policing officer who had worked on horrendous crime scenes and been a fixture in the neighborhood, directing toy drives and finding furniture for needy families.

She hadn’t performed a routine breast exam in a year or had a mammogram in ten years, and still wasn’t overly worried, having found a benign lump a decade ago.

On Monday, she went to see a doctor near her hometown. It took time and testing before she found out she had stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma in two connected tumors. As test results came in, she learned that she would likely need surgery, chemotherapy and possibly radiation.

“I had to digest this information in small doses,” says Wasilewski, who describes the experience not so much as frightening as it was overwhelming. “The most important thing I had to do was prepare my mother. I knew she was going to take it hard.”

Taking charge of a tough diagnosis

Wasilewski (right) follows up with Tara Sanft, who is still treating her with Herceptin.

She went to the Breast Center—Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven for a second opinion last October, and her first visit turned into five hours of talking to breast surgeon Anees Chagpar, MD and medical oncologist Tara Sanft, MD, among others. She came back to see therapeutic radiologist Joanne Weidhaas, MD, and later a genetics counselor.

By then I wanted the whole rundown,” says Wasilewski. “I went after it like it was a crime. They told me what was going to happen right down to the Tamoxifen that I would take—all of the specifics that I wanted.”

Some things were in her favor. For one thing, the tumor hadn’t spread. “We see the whole range at Smilow, and Holly’s cancer wasn’t a really early precancer, but it wasn’t metastatic either. Rather, it was in the middle, where it is still extremely treatable,” says Dr. Chagpar.

Wasilewski was also one of the first patients Dr. Chagpar treated when she came to Smilow last fall, and the doctor believes her story is a model example of the benefits of the multidisciplinary care Smilow provides. “We used the entire realm of expertise to treat her,” Dr. Chagpar says. Once doctors from the different disciplines gathered all of the information they needed, they collaborated to come up with Wasilewski’s individual care plan. Then they helped her schedule her appointments and treatments.

Through all of that, Dr. Chagpar was struck by her patient’s no-nonsense attitude—something she actually sees more of these days. “I knew I’d get through it,” Wasilewski says. “I pretty much said let’s do this.”

Getting through the treatment

Dr. Chagpar (left) congratulates Wasilewski on being a one-year survivor.

Then came chemotherapy and radiation, and she learned that side effects can vary widely from patient to patient. “I learned that you don’t necessarily get sick from chemotherapy, you don’t get nauseous. They disclaim those myths right away,” Wasilewski says. In her case, bone pain was a problem, but she learned she could partly control it with antihistamines. “I did lose all of my hair. Initially that was very traumatic. I had very long blonde hair, and it had been like that for years. When it started falling out, I cut it very short, then I shaved it. After a while, losing my hair began to seem insignificant,” she says.

In fact, her greatest concern was missing work, where she felt she was still very much needed. Dr. Chagpar offered this bit of wisdom: ”We’re going to control this cancer – don’t let the cancer control you.” So after surgery, Wasilewski went to work determined to get to her normal life, despite the side effects of treatment.

“I was on the street, driving around in my car,” she says. “I’m the supervisor, so I didn’t go to every call, and I didn’t work beyond my eight hours. But there was a gun call, there were stolen cars. Once a suspect got out of his car and was fighting with another officer, and I had to break it up. I had to be physically active,” she says.

Support from ‘extended family’

Elsa Berrios (right), a close friend, is one of many officers who supported Wasilewski throughout her treatment.

It helped to have the support of her medical team, as well as her coworkers. “In the police department, we have a large family of brother and sister officers, so when someone is sick or in an accident or their house burns down, we gather together to try to support that person,” Wasilewski says. Around the time of her surgery, they organized a fundraiser at a local club to help with bills, and officers from around the state participated.

One year later, Wasilewski is feeling better, although she is still being treated with Herceptin, a targeted therapy. She has a new mission: educate as many other women as possible about early detection. She considers herself fortunate to have found her cancer, and always reminds herself that it could be worse.

“I’ve been on some pretty horrendous crime scenes—one in particular that stays with me where two homeless people were bludgeoned to death. That was worse,” she says. “When I was diagnosed, I didn’t stop to think about it. I just kept going. It’s not the best journey, but you can survive it.”

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