Health Alert:

COVID-19 Vaccine Information and Updates

Rebecca Babik — HER2 Positive Breast Cancer Patient Story

Image of Rebecca Babik.

Dealing with breast cancer: From shock to determination

When Rebecca Babik learned she had breast cancer in 2014, she was in total shock. “There’s no history of breast cancer in my family,” says Rebecca, now 69, of Johnstown. “I never suspected it could happen to me.”

Rebecca thought she pulled a muscle under her arm while cleaning. She asked her niece, Elizabeth, a newly graduated physician’s assistant, what to do for a pulled muscle. Instead, her niece encouraged her to see her doctor.

“My doctor sent me right away for an ultrasound and a mammogram too. I’ve been getting annual mammograms since my 40s and they’ve never indicated any problem, so I expected to hear everything was fine.”

But when her doctor asked her to come to the office, Rebecca was worried. “My niece insisted on going with me. That’s advice I would give anyone: Take somebody with you when you go to talk to your doctor about a possible diagnosis.

“It’s true what they say: when you hear that word ‘cancer’ your mind just stops. The doctor was showing me diagrams and telling me I was going to need a mastectomy. I was still stuck on ‘What do you mean I have cancer?’”

Her doctor recommended a second opinion, so Rebecca made an appointment at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Monroeville with Emilia Diego, MD, who is a breast surgeon. Dr. Diego confirmed both the breast cancer diagnosis and the possibility that Rebecca would need a mastectomy. Dr. Diego arranged a same-day appointment for Rebecca to see Rajesh Sehgal, MD, chief of medical oncology at UPMC East, who also sees patients at UPMC Hillman’s Monroeville office on Oxford Drive.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Rebecca.

“Dr. Sehgal explained that I had stage four metastatic breast cancer, and it was already in my lymph nodes and my liver.” He told Rebecca that before considering surgery — which could be life threatening — their best option was to reduce the size of the lymph nodes with chemotherapy.

“My type of cancer is estrogen-driven,” says Rebecca. “When my treatment started, Dr. Sehgal tried several different kinds of chemo. But my tumors just didn’t respond.”

Dr. Sehgal began to suspect Rebecca had fast-growing HER2-positive breast cancer, which tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. When repeated tests failed his suspicions, Dr. Sehgal talked to an HER2 research specialist at UPMC who, based on her records, agreed Rebecca likely had HER2. Upon hearing that, Dr. Sehgal made countless phone calls to convince Rebecca’s insurance company to allow her to receive the drug for HER2. “His instincts and his efforts saved my life,” she says.

Once HER2 treatment began, Rebecca’s CAT scans showed the tumors were shrinking. “First the tumor in my liver was gone, then the two small tumors deep in my left breast disappeared,” she says.

Now, seven years later, Rebecca has never undergone surgery or radiation. “I still go to Monroeville every 21 days for preventive chemo,” she says. Although it’s an hour’s drive each way from Johnstown to Monroeville, “it’s a trip I gladly make,” says Rebecca. “I trust UPMC doctors completely. They’re knowledgeable, caring, and kind. I get everything I need in Monroeville. Dr. Sehgal is right here and the nurses make you feel special.

“You feel like they care about you, and that really makes a difference. When I was finally cancer-free, the nurses made me a card and signed it with their best wishes and congratulations. I have it framed in my living room. It’s something I will always treasure.”