WBNS-10TV anchor Tracy Townsend proudly holds many titles. Successful journalist. Wife. Mother. Daughter. Friend. And in 2010, she added one more: Survivor.
Surviving breast cancer was something she never imagined she’d have to do. A self-proclaimed rule follower with no family history of breast cancer, Townsend had mammograms faithfully every year. But she wears her new title as a badge of honor—a symbol that she’s a fighter.
Townsend was diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2010, at age 45, after a routine mammogram. The results came as a shock.
“I was thinking I was going to get that white piece of paper that says, ‘Oh you’re fine, see you next year,’” she says. Instead the doctor’s office called—while she was stopped at a gas station on her way to cover the election—and said they thought they saw something.
Although the caller from the doctor’s office told her not to panic, the news anchor immediately started crying, called her mother, then her husband, Murvin. They both tried to calm her down.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have cancer. What does this mean?’” Her first thoughts were of her close family unit—Murvin and their son, Ian. She knew right then she was going to fight.
“I said to myself, ‘Whatever it is, I’m going to do the most radical thing because I have a child, and I want to be here to love him and okay, yes, make his life a little miserable,’” she laughs. So she pulled herself together. She had an election to cover. She finished pumping her gas, pushed it out of her mind for the moment, and drove to work.
Although the diagnosis was devastating, Townsend had some things in her favor. Her doctors had found the tumor in the early stages, and it had not spread. Additionally, when she was living in Kansas City a decade earlier, her doctors had advised her to have a baseline mammogram. Forever grateful for being a rule follower, she credits the comparison of these test results with identifying that something wasn’t right.
The diagnosis was followed by a whirlwind of tests, biopsies, a second opinion and weighing treatment options. “I had the option of radiation and lumpectomy, or a mastectomy,” Townsend says. “I chose the mastectomy because I didn’t want to live a life of, ‘Is it going to come back?’”
She underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at Riverside Methodist Hospital in February of 2011. After spending two days in the hospital, she was discharged to go home to recover. She had a visiting nurse help her initially, but her mother came from Cincinnati to lend a hand as well. A retired LPN with a caring, but tough-love bedside manner, Townsend’s mother would not let her stay in bed feeling sorry for herself.
“She told me, ‘You can’t lie here and be sad. You have things to do,’” Townsend says. So she started walking. When she went back for her follow up appointment, she was strong enough to begin physical therapy at Grant Medical Center. She exercised regularly, and after a lot of hard work, she returned to Channel 10 a month later.
Being a public figure presented a unique challenge for Townsend, who is normally a private person. She initially didn’t want to share her diagnosis with the world. But just after she was diagnosed and had a biopsy, she went on assignment with a photographer who asked her to carry a light. She had to explain why she couldn’t. When he said his wife had been putting off having a mammogram, Townsend emphatically told him his wife needed to get one.
“That’s when a light bulb went off, and I realized I could help more than one person,” says Townsend. “There are probably a lot of women who are comfortable not knowing, or who don’t know what they don’t know.”
In the same year as her surgery, Townsend participated in Pelotonia, training to ride 25 miles and raising money for research.
As soon as she crossed the finish line, she knew she could do more. She rode 50 miles the following two years, and trained to ride 100 miles the fourth year.
“One hundred miles is hard, but it’s so incredible when you cross the finish line,” she exclaims.
Townsend serves on the board of Susan G. Komen Columbus, which she really enjoys because she hears other survivor stories, shares the message about early detection and supports the need for research and funding. Komen refers to and advocates for the Ohio Breast & Cervical Cancer Project (BCCP), a state-run program that provides no-cost breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings to women without insurance.
Townsend also participates in the Columbus Race for the Cure. She has her own team, named “No Trace of Fear” by one of her close friends, and helps during the race wherever needed. In 2015, Tracy Townsend, along with Maria Durant of ABC-6/FOX-28 and Robyn Haines of NBC-4, served as the event’s honorary chairs.
“We called ourselves the Charlie’s Angels,” she laughs.
Because of her personal experience, she has become fascinated with the medical field and is happy she gets to write about it. She hosts a 10-TV weekly segment called, “Toward a Cancer Free World” featuring physicians from The Ohio State University Comprehensive Care Center discussing cancer research and discoveries.
“One of the things I love about these segments is that you hear about the cutting edge research these doctors are doing, and you see their passion,” Townsend says, adding she’s confident she will someday be reporting about a cure.
But until then, Tracy Townsend plans to use her experience to help others.
“It has helped me be more open to letting people into a part of my life I think is private. And it’s certainly made me much more empathetic,” she says. “A lot of times people don’t want to talk about cancer. They don’t even want to say the word. Now I’m much more open to talking about it and trying to help people.”
As for her home life, she and her family are more cognizant of eating right and exercising. Townsend works out two days a week at Orangetheory Fitness, walks with her husband, and goes to the gym. Ian, now a high school senior, has appointed himself as her personal trainer.
“Even to this minute he’ll say, ‘So how many workouts did you get in this week, Mom?’”
As Townsend approaches 10 years being cancer free in 2021, she’s thinking about how she’ll celebrate, and it will definitely include her husband and son. “We’re all about experiences now,” Townsend says, “I don’t know what it will be. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, and I would love to go do something like that.”
In addition to getting regular mammograms, being their own advocates, and getting second opinions, women should take care of themselves, Townsend advises.
“I know we hate to hear it when the studies say we should watch what we eat and exercise, but we should watch what we eat and exercise,” Townsend says. “And we should hold each other accountable. Don’t put yourself last.”
Breast Cancer Treatment Advances
The evolution of treatment options for breast cancer patients has been moving from chemotherapy to targeted treatments with a focus on optimizing the survivor’s quality of life. Dr. Sagar Sardesai, Assistant Professor of Medical Oncology, Medical Co-director of the High Risk Breast Program at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute shared with us some of the latest FDA approved treatments.
The advent of CDK4-6 inhibitors in combination with anti-estrogen therapy has changed the paradigm of upfront treatment in metastatic breast cancer. They have shown to nearly double ‘remission time’ (progression free survival) with significantly improved QoL. More recent evidence suggests an improvement in longevity as well. There are three commercially available CDKi in the US- Plbociclib (Ibrance), Ribociclib (Kisqali) and Abemaciclib( Verzenio).
Some targeted therapies are directed towards a specific cancer marker. Recent FDA approval of Alpelisib (Piqray) is one such example. This therapy was shown to have significant benefit in a subset of advanced breast cancer patients with cancer cells harboring a genomic alteration/mutation in PIK3CA gene. Other therapies that target specific mutations include PARP inhibitors in patients with HER 2 negative advanced breast cancer and germline BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation.
Lastly, immunotherapy- treatment aimed at harnessing body’s immune response in fighting breast cancer is paving its way in treatment of advanced breast cancer. Recent approval of Atezolizumab (Tecentriq) has shown significant improvement in remission time for subset of patients with advanced breast cancer with a particularly aggressive biology –triple negative breast cancer that expresses a marker ‘PDL-1’ on immune cells isolated from the tumor specimen.
For early breast cancer (Stage I – Stage II), newer treatments include neratinib- an anti-HER 2 therapy, which has improved chances of remaining cancer free for patients with HER 2 positive breast cancer after completing therapy with Herceptin following breast surgery.
Several ongoing trials will likely change the treatment paradigm for our breast cancer patients in the near future, the hope is to end cancer with treatments that are more efficacious, targeted with little added toxicity.