Vibrant and Grateful

Two years ago, Carmen Ward was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer called mucinous carcinoma. In her early 80s, she continues to be grateful for the life she's led and the future she has, and she points to her care at UNC Hospitals for helping her maintain a positive outlook.

Vibrant and Grateful click to enlarge Carmen Ward
Vibrant and Grateful click to enlarge Dr. Sheryl Jordan and Dr. Hy Muss

Carmen Ward doesn’t take for granted her roots, nor the opportunities her years have afforded her. Vibrant into her early 80s, Ward has traveled the world, having visited more than 20 countries. She actively participates in Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. As a trained pianist, she plays regularly at church worship services and serves as accompanist to two local choral groups. During her more than 15 years working as a college administrator in the International Programs Office at Babson College, she received her Ed.D. in Education. She was honored in 1996 by Babson, as well as by the Massachusetts Association for Women in Education, for her efforts in the “advancement of women’s causes.”

"What an amazing life I've had, especially growing up in Kansas on a farm,” Ward says. “My parents valued books and education, but because of the Depression and then World War II, I was the only one of five children to complete college. I obtained my doctoral degree for the love of learning, but also during an era in which women's leadership in higher education was gaining a lot more attention." 

Ward’s grateful outlook on life was tested when she learned of her Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis in January 2013. Her primary care provider at Durham’s Highgate Family Medicine first noticed a breast lump during her annual exam, and he referred her to UNC Hospitals. At UNC’s Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic, Associate Professor of Radiology Dr. Sheryl Jordan biopsied Ward’s breast mass. The initial lab report returned a diagnosis of Stage 1 invasive mucinous carcinoma of the breast. Ward received the news by phone from the Division of Surgical Oncology, and she saw Jordan again at her follow-up visit.

“Dr. Jordan saw me as a person, not as just another patient,” remembers Ward. “She is one of the most caring providers who's treated me. In a hospital, a patient ends up seeing a lot of providers, many of them only once. Even now, nearly two years since my surgery, Dr. Jordan remembers me and greets me warmly each time I see her. That has made a real difference in my experience at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital."     

In turn, Dr. Jordan’s patient-provider exchanges with Ward produced similar sentiments regarding her patient:  “From the moment I met Dr. Ward two years ago, and in every interaction since, I have been inspired, strengthened, and even entertained by her,” Jordan says. “She’s overcome each challenge in the most gracious, graceful, and giving manner. In a physician’s career, there are many special patients who touch and teach.  Lovely Carmen is the most special of special!” 

Based on the additional pathology report, Ward’s UNC treatment team determined that neither chemotherapy nor radiation were required for her case. A few weeks after her diagnosis, former UNC Professor of Surgery Dr. Nancy DeMore performed Ward’s lumpectomy. For her post-operative therapy, Ward was started on a five-year therapeutic regimen of one milligram a day of anastrozole (Arimidex).   

Accounting for only 2.4% of invasive breast cancers, Ward’s breast cancer type - mucinous carcinoma - gives her a very promising road ahead in overcoming her diagnosis. Metastasis to the nodes is less likely with mucinous carcinomas, and this cancer type’s characteristic tumors equal a less aggressive cancer in Ward’s case.  

Dr. Hy Muss, Professor of Medicine and Director of Geriatric Oncology, is a leading expert on optimal breast cancer treatments for women aged 65 and older. Dr. Muss’ groundbreaking research has shown the majority of older breast cancer patients present with curable disease, where major survival benefits come from treating hormone receptor-positive tumors with tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, rather than adjuvant chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

"Carmen Ward is an example of the many issues faced by health care professionals in caring for cancer in older people,” adds Muss. “Breast cancer, as well as almost all human cancers, are diseases of aging, and we are seeing more and more seniors with cancer as our population ages. Many patients like Carmen are extremely healthy and should be managed with state-of-the-art care. Fortunately, many older women with breast cancer have lower-risk tumors and can be spared some of the more intensive treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy. Carmen’s care also underscores the value of the team approach. Having professionals with different skill sets is the optimal way to treat older patients."

Two years removed from surgery, diverse life experiences have shaped Ward’s perspective on what she’s gone through, and she is grateful to have resumed and continued her pre-diagnosis activities. 

“I feel very fortunate with my diagnosis and treatment,” she says. “I’ve always paid attention to what it takes to stay healthy, have had regular check-ups, have done yoga for 30 years and strength-training classes for nearly 15 years. I’m also fortunate to have good genes, and longevity runs in my family. Taking a daily medication, which, in my case, has had practically no side effects, has become the only real way my health regimen  has changed, so there is much for which to be thankful as I look to the future.”

by Laurie Birdsong - laurie_birdsong@med.unc.edu