By Heather Sessions
When Chealci Eddins found a lump in her breast during a self-exam in the shower last September, she wasn’t too worried. A young wife and mother, she had just finished her master’s degree and had plans to earn her Ph.D. She never dreamed at age 27 she would be diagnosed with stage III breast cancer.
“I was definitely surprised,” Eddins said. “I’m always on top of my health checks, so being diagnosed with cancer at such a young age was a complete shock.”
Eddins came in for a consultation just before the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the U.S. Although she was concerned about the virus, she knew she needed to act quickly when the lump grew to the size of a golf ball within a month. She completed her first round of chemotherapy in March, immediately before the pandemic shut down all non-essential operations.
“Being diagnosed with cancer is scary enough, then you add a global pandemic to the mix and it definitely added another layer of anxiety and uncertainty,” Eddins said.
Jessica Jones, MD, a UTHealth breast oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Cancer Center-Texas Medical Center, was the physician who diagnosed Eddins’ cancer. She heard about Dr. Jones after her grandmother saw her on the news, and she’s so glad she did.
“I didn’t have an oncologist, and I didn’t even know where to start,” Eddins said. “Dr. Jones’ compassion and motivation to cure my cancer made all the difference. She immediately made me feel comfortable, and I knew I was in good hands.”
Dr. Jones knew she had to look closely at Eddins’ treatment plan, given her age.
“I was concerned because she was so young,” Dr. Jones said. “I included genetic testing and fertility preservation options for her before we started treatment. She didn’t know her family history, but she knows now that she has a gene mutation that puts her at increased risk for developing cancer. Thankfully, it is completely curable since it has not spread to the organs or bones.”
According to Dr. Jones, it is particularly important that cancer patients take extra precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their compromised immune systems.
“It is challenging because we have very little data for cancer patients who get sick with COVID-19 if they are on chemotherapy, but the universal concern is that they would potentially be sicker,” said Dr. Jones.
According to Dr. Jones, Memorial Hermann recommends universal masking for cancer patients because more and more studies suggest that droplet spread is the most common spread from both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers.
Jones recommends the following for her patients undergoing cancer treatment:
- If you go in public, protect your hair by wearing a hat since we know the virus has been isolated on hair.
- Change your clothes in a separate area when you arrive home and put them in a separate bag for washing.
- Be vigilant about hand-washing with soap and water or hand sanitizer when going out, and even when at home.
- Regularly clean high-touch areas, such as remotes/light switches/handles
Dr. Jones says the most important recommendation is that the people who live with someone undergoing cancer treatment practice social distancing to limit potential exposure.
The self-proclaimed “social distancing queen,” Eddins made the decision to self-quarantine after the COVID-19 outbreak. She knew she must stay healthy, given that radiation and surgery are in her future, and she is also fighting for her husband and her two-year-old daughter, Riley.
Eddins’ students also keep her motivated to fight the fight. As a ninth-grade Algebra teacher, she has a lot of people supporting her, including the principal at her school who is also a five-year breast cancer survivor.
When her students and colleagues heard of her diagnosis, they jumped into action, making pink shirts for everyone and hosting a special ceremony to honor her complete with cake, TikTok videos and a “We Love You, Mrs. Ennis” sign adorning the wall.
Eddins remembers laughing so much with her friends at the ceremony that it made her forget about her cancer.
“Everyone has been so supportive,” she says. “The cards and notes of encouragement continue to pour in, which helps me to stay focused and motivated, even when I’m having a rough day. Teaching is my true passion—I hated to end the year like this with the COVID-19 situation, but my students make me want to do more. I love building curriculum and helping students learn, and they have certainly taught me a few things in the process, like not sweating the small stuff.”
Dr. Jones says she will continue to support Eddins in her fight long after her treatment to ensure her daughter is protected when she grows up.
“Chealci is in the prime of her life, being a young wife and mother,” Dr. Jones said. “We are not only treating Chealci, the patient—but the mom of a two-year-old, the wife of an adoring husband, a teacher, a best friend and a daughter. We will ensure she has every chance for a fulfilling life after cancer. COVID-19 will not stop us from treating our patients and providing them the highest level of care.”