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Breast cancer diagnosis didn't keep her from her life's work

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Posted at 3:11 PM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 15:11:56-04

BALTIMORE — “COVID hit and it's like the Super Bowl of my career. I mean, this is what we've been talking about a pandemic coming for decades.”

As the coronavirus pandemic set in, Shawn Mueller watched years of work and preparation pay off. But not just as the Director for Infection Prevention at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital. She was also a patient.

During her yearly checkup at The Breast Center at MedStar Union Memorial in February 2020, doctors found a mass in her left breast.

She was told it was likely cancer. A biopsy needed to be done to be sure. The staff at MedStar Health walked her through the next steps.

“It was very interesting but horrifying at the same time. As women we are blessed with these breasts. I breastfed my babies. And then to have, like, your body turn on you and try to kill you, is like, ‘what the hell is this?’”

MedStar Health Cancer Network takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to treating breast cancer patients. Mueller talked to all the physicians on her care team to determine the best treatment options.

She decided on a double mastectomy. Less than a month after her official diagnosis and just before Maryland entered a State of Emergency, Mueller had surgery.

While undergoing treatment for her cancer she continued working. After her mastectomy, Mueller went through nine weeks of chemotherapy. Walking and working got her through that difficult time.

“My team and I had strict rules like okay, your lab values have to be within certain boundaries to let you come to work physically on site. And pretty much I knew if they saw me up on a unit, they would haul my ass off the unit by my ear.”

She was able to work both at home and in the hospital when she needed to.

“And people were like, oh, my God. Aren't you scared to be immunocompromised and getting chemotherapy and stuff and having to go in the hospital? Like this is actually the safest time ever to go. Everybody is hyper vigilant about cleaning. And there aren't any visitors. And I knew this is the ideal time to do it, so I felt pretty comfortable.”

Mueller saw all the safety and hygiene efforts she worked on at the hospital in action as her medical team took all the proper precautions.

“It was very comforting to see all this behind the scenes work I've done with MedStar for almost a decade in action. That was very rewarding to be on the receiving end of that. But also knowing that I wasn't like something super special.

“I was another patient because they go ‘Oh, hey, what do you do for MedStar?’ And I tell them like, ‘Oh, I didn't know how you're doing all these things.’ And it just made me happy that that they were treating me like anybody else, which was phenomenal.”

Finishing up chemotherapy at the end of September 2020, Mueller went through radiation treatments. Her cancer is now in remission.

This summer she underwent breast reconstruction. Instead of an implant she opted to have a Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator Flap procedure. This means tissue from her abdomen was used to reconstruct the breast.

Dr. Gabriel Del Corral with MedStar Franklin Square Hospital performed her surgery in July. He walked Mueller through her options and together they determined she was a great candidate for the DIEP Flap.

“It's all about what is going to be the best for that particular patient at that particular time, and sometimes the therapy that they're receiving such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy may limit the options for the patient. But it's still important as plastic surgeons to just educate patients and families about all the options,” said Dr. Del Corral.

He also wants patients to know it’s never too late to have reconstructive surgery. He works with women while they’re going through treatments or even years later.

Mueller will have one more surgery to refine her reconstruction.

Dr. Maen Farha, one of Mueller’s oncologists and the medical director of the MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital Breast Center talked about the importance of getting yearly mammograms.

“A majority of cancers nowadays are detected by screening mammograms. And most often, tumors detected by screening mammography are stage one or stage two.”

It is generally recommended that women over the age of 40 have annual mammograms.

If there is a family history, it is recommended those screenings start earlier.

Mueller credits her appointment with saving her life.

“I think the main thing is get that annual mammogram. Just get it because you just don't know what's on the other side. And I'm really glad that it was so small and caught so quickly. Because if I had delayed more, it could have been a disaster.”