By: Heather Sessions
When Chealci Eddins found a lump in her breast during a self-exam in the shower in September 2019, 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 that, at age 27, she would be diagnosed with stage III breast cancer.
“I was definitely surprised,” she said. “I’m always on top of my health checks, so being diagnosed with cancer at such a young age was a complete shock.”
Chealci 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 because the lump had grown to the size of a golf ball within a month. She completed her first round of chemotherapy in March 2020, immediately before the pandemic shut down all nonessential 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,” Chealci said.
Jessica Jones, MD, Assistant Professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and a breast oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann, diagnosed Chealci’s cancer. Chealci heard about Dr. Jones after her grandmother saw her on the news, and she’s glad she did.
“I didn’t have an oncologist, and I didn’t even know where to start,” Chealci 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 Chealci’s 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, even though the COVID pandemic appears to be waning, it is particularly important that cancer patients take extra precautions because of their compromised immune systems.
“It is challenging because we have very little data for cancer patients who get sick with COVID 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 form of transmission from both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers.
According to Dr. Jones, 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,” Chealci made the decision to self-quarantine after the COVID outbreak. She knew she had to stay healthy while recovering from radiation and surgery, and she wanted to protect her husband and her daughter, Riley.
Chealci’s 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. Eddins” sign.
Chealci 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 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 Chealci in her fight long after her treatment ends.
“Chealci is in the prime of her life,” Dr. Jones said. “We are not only treating Chealci, the patient, but a mom, 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.”
Today, nearly three years after her initial diagnosis, Chealci is thriving. She underwent a double mastectomy, a procedure where both breasts are removed, and will soon have reconstruction surgery. Right now, she is feeling great and enjoying life.
“A cancer diagnosis really changes you. I’m trying to be more spontaneous and live in the moment. I recently took my first solo trip to San Francisco where I explored the city and enjoyed Chinatown – something I’ve never done,” she said.
Chealci has also achieved a few professional milestones since ringing the bell. She has been promoted twice, and is currently working as an instructional coach at a local high school. She’s also working on completing her Ph.D., something she had to put on hold after being diagnosed with cancer.
Personally, she is looking forward to enjoying time with her now 5-year-old daughter, and being there for her mom, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It’s truly a blessing that I met Dr. Jones, because now she is treating my mom,” Chealci said. “When she told me Dr. Jones was going to be her doctor, I was overwhelmed with joy. I know she is in the best hands.”