There are moments that change your life forever, where the earth seems to shift, leaving you trying to make sense of it all. One of those moments happened to Lori Sumner on May 4, 2017 — the day she learned she had breast cancer.
As a Physician Assistant, Sumner understands the value of prevention and living a healthy lifestyle. The busy Mooresville wife and mother of three keeps up with her checkups and screenings, watches her diet, and works out on a regular basis. It was during one of her morning workouts in February 2017 that she noticed a pain on the far-right side of her chest that seemed unusual.
“I felt soreness and then discovered two lumps. I made an appointment that week to see my primary care provider and she agreed it didn’t seem like it was anything to be concerned about, but we would go through the protocol of getting a mammogram and ultrasound.”
The mammogram did not show any abnormalities in the breast tissue, but an ultrasound showed three areas of possible concern. A radiologist thought those areas may have been swollen lymph nodes, and Sumner was told to return for a follow up ultrasound in six weeks to see if the areas had improved.
“I just kind of forgot about it,” said Sumner. “I was alarmed that the pain was there but I didn't worry too much about it. I had no family history. I was in the best shape of my life.”
But the lumps didn't go away. Six weeks later she returned for another ultrasound and two weeks after that, a biopsy. Then on May 4, Sumner received news that no one wants to hear.
“The only thing I remember the radiologist saying is that things didn't go as we had hoped and that my biopsy was positive,” Sumner recalled. “In those first couple of days I couldn't even look at the pathology report, I was in such a state of shock over it.”
Facing the Diagnosis
Sumner has practiced medicine for more than 20 years and joined the Iredell Physician Network – part of Iredell Health System – at a Mooresville practice, Iredell Family Medicine, in 2016.
After receiving her diagnosis, going through more tests and having more conversations with her medical team, Sumner underwent a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction that June. The surgery revealed the cancer was more advanced than previously thought, stage two instead of stage one. Doctors recommended chemotherapy and radiation. The news hit Sumner hard.
“I could barely speak, it was hard to wrap my head around it,” said Sumner.
She faced months of recovery and then harsh treatments to help keep the cancer from coming back. Her close-knit family was by her side through it all and her friends rallied around her. She started a blog, writing about everything from her medical prognosis to how she and her husband gave their youngest son his favorite breakfast on chemo days, because staying cancer free was something to celebrate.
“Breast cancer has been disruptive. Just to be home and not doing what you normally do and to be in the role of a patient, it’s not fun. But to have the support of the people I love, that means the world to me.”
A New Perspective
Sumner's breast cancer didn't follow all the rules that we may think apply to the disease. None of her immediate family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history. Also, Sumner's story shows that while mammograms are important and can help to find breast cancer before symptoms start, they are not 100 percent effective.
Nowadays, Sumner’s life looks a little more familiar, like her life before breast cancer. Her final chemo appointment was now almost 3 years ago. She returned to the job she loves three months after surgery, bringing a new perspective to the practice.
"I have always strived to provide compassionate personalized care to my patients," Sumner said. "I like my patients to be involved in the decision making for their care. Now, having experienced medicine from a patient perspective, I understand better how vulnerable you can feel as a patient and the importance of having complete trust in your healthcare providers."
She also understands the importance of having a strong support system, like the more than 70 friends and family who walked with Team Sumner the year of her diagnosis during the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Charlotte.
"I am so blessed with an amazing group of family and friends," said Sumner. “Living through this long emotional treatment and being able to say that my cancer is gone and there is a way I can prevent it from coming back gives me so much hope."
She encourages women to have their annual mammograms, but most importantly, to recognize changes in the way their breasts look or feel. Warning signs can include nipple discharge, skin irritation or dimpling, breast pain, and swelling, even if you don't feel a lump.
“You think of a mammogram as a security blanket, but I think the biggest thing is knowing your own breast tissue and knowing what is normal for you and what is not. It’s important to perform self-breast exams. If there’s something abnormal, you should get it checked. It could save your life.”
*An original version of this story was published in October 2017. It was updated October 2020.