Nancy Linsenbigler – Breast Cancer Patient Story

Nancy Linsenbigler

“Lucky” Cancer Patient Finds the Care She Needs — Close to Home

When Nancy Linsenbigler first noticed the lump in her right breast in August 2013, she wasted no time making an appointment with her gynecologist, who ordered a biopsy. She was right to be worried. “When I went in to discuss my results, I knew right away it wasn’t good news,” she says.

Diagnosed with an aggressive, stage II HER2 positive breast cancer, Nancy was quickly referred to a breast surgeon. But she didn’t feel comfortable with his approach. At the urging of her son, she decided to seek a second opinion. Her research led her to UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

“It was clear they had more access to cutting edge research, studies, clinical trials, and treatments,” says Nancy, a resident of Irwin, Pa. “I felt I had a better chance there than anywhere else.”

A Team Approach

Nancy, then 56, initially saw Marguerite Bonaventura, MD, a UPMC Magee breast surgical oncologist who has since retired, at the UPMC Magee Womancare Center in Monroeville. She referred Nancy to Dhaval Mehta, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Monroeville, for chemotherapy treatment prior to surgery. 

“I felt so confident with both doctors,” says Nancy. “They really knew what they were doing. And they worked together to plan my treatment.”

After a port was inserted at UPMC East in September 2013, Nancy began six months of neoadjuvant chemotherapy — a combination of five anticancer drugs given in two separate cycles. One was an experimental drug administered as part of a clinical trial. All treatments were administered at UPMC Hillman in Monroeville — just 20 minutes away from her home.

The treatment worked: Nancy’s tumor shrank 60% by the time Dr. Bonaventura performed a lumpectomy in May 2014. 

A month later, Nancy began a five-week course of daily radiation treatments at UPMC East under the care of a UPMC Hillman radiation oncologist. She continued receiving trastuzamab — a targeted cancer drug — until the following February. 

A Three-Year Reprieve

“I was good for three years,” says Nancy, a full-time federal employee.  “Then I started feeling abdominal pain and fatigue.”

A CT scan taken in August 2017 showed she had stage IV metastatic cancer that had spread to her liver, pancreas, lungs, and spine. When she asked Dr. Mehta to be honest with her, he advised her to get her affairs in order, but remained optimistic. “I don’t know if I can save you, but I have lots of tools in my bag,” he told her.

This time around, Dr. Mehta hit the cancer hard with 9 hours of chemotherapy, followed by another multidrug chemotherapy regimen. Although the treatment cleared the tumors from her body, he warned her that the chemotherapy could not penetrate the blood-brain barrier. 

“He told me to pay close attention to my body — especially headaches — because cancer will continue to look for a home,” says Nancy. 

In December 2018, Nancy began experiencing headaches. An MRI detected at least seven brain lesions.

More Chemo and Radiation

Dr. Mehta started Nancy on a new round of chemotherapy treatments. He also brought in another team member, referring her to Steven Burton, MD, a radiation oncologist at UPMC Hillman-Shadyside.

Dr. Burton specializes in stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) — a precise, concentrated type of radiation treatment that targets and destroys tumors in hard-to-reach areas like the brain. The technology minimizes radiation damage to surrounding tissue. From 2018 to 2020, Nancy underwent five rounds of SRS treatments. 

In 2020, following a new FDA approval, Dr. Mehta introduced a cutting-edge combination of drug treatments — a pill that specifically targets HER2-related brain lesions, plus another oral chemotherapy in conjunction with immunotherapy to treat and prevent new brain lesions. “He always keeps up with the latest treatments and studies,” says Nancy.

“I Feel Lucky”

Eight years after her breast cancer diagnosis, Nancy is doing great. She continued to work throughout her treatments — only taking time off for appointments and some Friday treatments. 

“Right now, everything is cleared up. There’s nothing in my lungs, my liver, and my pancreas. Even my bones have started to heal,” says Nancy. “I have no new lesions in my brain and the old lesions are barely visible. I feel very lucky.”

Nancy credits Dr. Mehta and her whole team of UPMC Hillman doctors for saving her life. She also commends the staff at each office, especially physician assistant Jessie Starr-Nelson, PA-C, in Dr. Mehta’s office.

“I don’t think I could have gotten better treatment anywhere else,” she says.

Nancy continues to see Dr. Mehta regularly. She also undergoes monitoring every three to four months — CT scans of her chest, abdomen, and pelvis, an echocardiogram of her heart, and brain MRIs — at UPMC facilities in Monroeville.

“It’s amazing. The cancer was everywhere, now it’s gone. I don’t feel sick — in fact, I feel good,” says Nancy.  “I was able to keep working. Life is good.”

Nancy's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.