Preventative surgery saves Laney student

May 26, 2016 1:24 PM

Not much scares Leilani Matthews. The word cancer terrified her.

That is not surprising. Her mother, Louise, had cancer twice. She beat cancer the first time after undergoing a mastectomy. She lost the second battle, when she got cancer in her other breast, succumbing to the deadly disease. Matthews saw first-hand what cancer could do to people.

Matthews left Oakland Tech High School in 1986 after getting her California High School Proficiency Certificate. She enrolled at Laney College later that year—but dropped out almost immediately.

“I wasn’t ready,” she said.

She came back in 1992 and started studying photography. She continued until 1996 when her mother’s cancer returned.

After that, Leilani got a good job—out of state. She worked there for years, after ten years, she returned to Laney. She felt Laney would be a safe place to “reinvent myself.”

After her first semester back, her English teacher, Alex Sterling, recommended that she become a tutor. Matthews was coming into her own. At Laney she had time to explore what her interests were. She said she hadn’t really figured it out until she started tutoring. She added, “Then I realized I could really do something with this. Not only do I really like this, but I’m helping people.”

In 2008 she earned four Associates of Arts degrees from Laney College and transferred to SFSU. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in with a concentration in Language Studies, and a minor in Holistic Health. Matthews did not stop tutoring at Laney when she transferred to SFSU. Matthews knows that her time at Laney was special.

She believes “You get from Laney what you put into Laney. She saw Laney as an opportunity to “really challenge myself and …become the student that I didn’t think I was.” She credits all of her teachers for the encouragement they gave her.

She was taken aback when, after a routine mammogram, the doctor called her in and told her they needed to take a closer look at something.

While tutoring at Laney, she developed a love for language and found what she really wanted to do with her life. Matthews began the MA/TESOL program at SFSU shortly after graduating, but still continued to tutor at Laney. She explains, “I can at least give back to Laney in tutoring, and I’m hoping to work there one day as an ESOL teacher.” She has been working as a tutor at Laney for many years and has helped countless students.

This strong woman who had already faced so much in her life was completely taken aback when after a routine mammogram the doctor called her in and told her they needed to take a closer look at something they had seen in her left breast. They scheduled a needle biopsy.

After that painful procedure the doctors could not tell if she had Atypical Ductal Hyperplasia or ductal carcinoma in situ, known as stage 0 cancer. They scheduled a surgical biopsy to find out. They found out that she had ADH the less serious of the two conditions. Her doctor was very explicit in pointing out though that if had she waited, her condition would have turned into cancer.

After her mother’s ordeals, Matthews had always felt “cancer was a step behind me. I was always afraid it would catch up.” Her doctors had referred her to an oncologist that immediately put her on Tamoxifen, a cancer drug. That scared her because she didn’t understand why she needed a cancer drug if she didn’t have cancer. The oncologist also recommended that she get genetic testing for the “cancer gene.”

Everyone has a BRCA I and a BRCA II gene, but if either of them are defective, it can lead to a much higher risk for cancer. Matthews tested positive for the defective gene which meant she was at a greater risk for many cancers including: breast, ovarian, pancreatic, skin and others. She got this terrible news days after losing her father to lung disease.

Matthews is a “previvor,” someone who undergoes preventative surgery to avoid having cancer. Until recently it had not been an available option.

Faced with this horrific situation, she made the choice to have preventative surgery. For her it was the only choice. Rather than sitting back and “waiting to get cancer,” she decided to have both breasts and her fallopian tubes removed. She explains, “I did this simply because I wanted to live. Cancer is far more invasive than these surgeries.”

Matthews is what’s known as a “previvor,” someone who undergoes preventative surgery to avoid having cancer. The idea has become more widely accepted after Angelina Jolie had a similar procedure. Until recently it had not been an available treatment option.

Matthews chose this surgery because her mother never had this opportunity and because she wanted her family and friends to know they didn’t have to blindly follow what a doctor told them. She says, “No matter how horrible the ituation is, we can make our own choices.”

The treatment was done in two surgeries. The first surgery was the removal of her breast tissue. After that surgery two drains were left in her to help the healing process. It was an awkward and painful recovery. Her uncle flew from Tennessee to be with her for the surgery. He stayed for two weeks to help with her recovery.

Her second surgery removed her fallopian tubes and reconstructed her breasts. Once again her uncle flew out to be with her. He stayed at the hospital the entire time she was there. This time she had six surgical drains hanging from her body when she got home. Two weeks after the surgery she was back in the hospital because her drains were infected. After a month of attending to whatever she needed, her uncle had to return home.

Her recovery has been difficult. The drains have been removed but she still cannot stand up straight. She is constantly tired and finds things she used to take for granted very difficult.

Matthews has taken the last two semesters off to deal with her medical issues. She hopes to be able to return both to SFSU and to tutoring at Laney in the fall. She is currently undergoing physical therapy. She describes her life as having been “put on hold.”

She is very grateful for her family and friends who have supported her. She has set up a go fund me page to cover medical and living costs and in hopes or reimbursing her uncle for his expenses.

Leilani’s page can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/8nzc9vjs

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