SAN ANTONIO – Shawn Velez conquered life head-on as a metastatic breast cancer patient and the ambulatory care director for University Health.
“I had 23 treatments, and then right after that, I’d go to work,” Velez said.
The chemo hit her hard, causing extreme exhaustion and weakening her body to the point that she fractured her hip just by sitting too long on a car ride.
“I worked through this whole process, but there have been days where I just — I didn’t know if I could do it. You know, I was just so tired,” Velez said.
But her spirit persisted, and she rang the bell on Tuesday after her last chemo treatment.
“My family, I have got a lot to celebrate with them!” she said, smiling before entering the infusion room.
She found the lump in her breast in March 2022 and, since then, has undergone chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and radiation.
Then, she continued radiation for a new clinical trial testing the effects of blocking estrogen in breast cancer patients. She received those infusions at UT Health San Antonio’s Mays Cancer Center as the location where Shawn received her infusions.
The last chemo treatment for that study is the one that ended Tuesday.
“It had already spread to the lymph nodes. And I thought to myself that if I hadn’t checked and found it, we could have progressed much further along,” Velez said.
She has no family history of breast cancer but does her yearly mammograms. Despite that, she found the tumor through a self-exam in the shower.
Velez said she knows being proactive saved her life. However, she is worried for other women, knowing many began skipping their screenings during the pandemic.
“We want to catch cancer small before the patient can feel it. That’s how we save lives, because the bigger it is, the more chances it can travel somewhere else,” said Dr. Sara Ortiz, interim medical director of mammography for University Health and UT Health San Antonio.
Dr. Ortiz said transparency with the process can usually quell some fears. She went through each step of the mammogram, showing the screening machine and what it does.
“You would be in a gown and place your breasts here on the plate. We can move the machine so the tech will gently compress your breasts, and the machine will take pictures,” Ortiz said, showing the process.
She said everyone’s level of discomfort is different.
“It can be uncomfortable. I’ve done it, and, one of them, I had no pain at all,” Ortiz said.
She said the process only takes a few seconds, a short time commitment that can save your life.
Ortiz pointed to her computer, where she pulled up a scan showing a breast cancer tumor, saying, “You can see that little mass. I’m able to circle it, to measure it, to know the exact location and the size.”
The stage of cancer depends on the tumor’s size and how much it has spread.
As Velez works her way toward remission, she’s also on a different mission.
“Everybody knows, I’m like, ‘You need to check. You need to check, especially those with a high family history,’” Velez said.
She is an advocate of Pinktober, an awareness campaign during Breast Cancer Awareness Month meant to educate people on the risks associated with skipping screenings.
It’s also about the services and support available.
“Because of the rising numbers of earlier diagnoses of breast cancer, we’re starting to see more mobile mammogram units, free services, things of that nature,” Velez said.
In May 2023, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed its guidance to recommend that women begin getting annual mammograms earlier, at age 40. However, that age drops if you have risk factors or a family history of breast cancer.
“If you have a family history of somebody pre-menopausal with breast cancer, you start 10 years before. If they got it at 40, you start screening at 30,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said if you’re unsure, talk to your doctor about when you should start getting screened.
Velez is 46, but some of her friends with breast cancer are in their early 30s.
“You have to be in charge of your own body and knowing what’s wrong and not delaying care. It can’t be worse than not getting checked out and finding out too late. Advocate for yourself, know your body, and don’t be don’t be afraid to self-exam,” Velez said.
To schedule a mammogram or learn more, contact University Health at 210-358-4000 or the University Health website.
You can reach UT Health San Antonio at 210-450-1000 or visit its website.