The day after Christmas 2022, Shannon Dickson, then 35 and a mother of three, was toweling off after a shower and felt something unusual in her left breast. She called to her mom, who was visiting for the holidays, and asked, “Will you feel this? This feels weird, right?” Her mom agreed.

At the time, Dickson was still nursing her youngest child and assumed it was a clogged milk duct.

But when she called her internist, Dr. Kavita Shanker-Patel of Novant Health Waxhaw Family & Sports Medicine, the next day, they got her in right away and recommended a mammogram.

“They squeezed me in the next day,” Dickson said. “It turned into four mammograms, three ultrasounds, three biopsies and an X-ray, all in one day.”

The next day, she got the results: invasive ductal carcinoma. The tumor was 6.2 centimeters or 2.5 inches – a significant size. And it was Stage 3, meaning it had spread to her lymph nodes.

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Dr. Peter Turk

Dr. Peter Turk, Dickson’s surgical oncologist at Novant Health Cancer Institute – Elizabeth in Charlotte, would later call it “a devastating diagnosis.”

Dickson had HER2-amplified breast cancer, which refers to a cell protein that helps cancer spread. “Twenty years ago, there wasn’t an effective treatment,” said Turk. “Herceptin, a drug that targets HER2, changed that. It’s highly effective; 70% of patients on it have a complete response at time of surgery. But completing treatment requires a full year of targeted therapy.”

The diagnosis came as a shock. Dickson has no family history of breast cancer, and she’s young, active and healthy. She has a master’s in exercise science and has eaten a plant-based diet for more than 11 years.

“I’m very mindful of what I put in my body,” she said. “My friends call me ‘The Crunchy One.’”

Because she’s guided by faith, she felt equipped to face this challenge. “I thought: I’m glad it’s me,” she said. “I couldn’t handle it if my husband or one of my kids had this. But I know my body and I know my God, and we were going to get through this.”

Dickson’s first appointment was with her nurse navigator, Vicki Davidson – “an angel on earth,” Dickson said. For the duration of Dickson’s yearlong treatment, Davidson was there at every step. “She set up appointments, made connections, answered questions,” she said. “She even showed up at some appointments just to give me a hug.”

Turk said, “Our nurse navigators are a great benefit to patients. Vicki has been here longer than any navigator, and she really goes above and beyond.”

Dickson kids. no parents
Brynn, Brenton and Sienna Dickson

‘You can do hard things’

When she got the news, Dickson’s first thought was of her children. “They were so young,” she said. (4, 3 and 15 months.) “We were on this weird rollercoaster of: What do we tell them? What don’t we tell them? What will they understand?”

But then she and her husband, Michael, realized their kids didn’t know “cancer” is a scary word.

So, they told them, Dickson said, “as calmly as possible. We said, ‘There’s something in Mommy’s body called cancer that isn’t supposed to be there. God and her doctors are going to get it out.’ And then we stepped outside and bawled our eyes out.”

The children seemed relieved to know. They could sense something wrong. Family and friends were coming over often all of the sudden, and “everyone would start crying when they walked in. I’ve always told my kids: ‘You can do hard things.’ I thought: This is my chance to walk that talk. And they handled it like champs.”

‘Our ultimate goal is to cure’

Dickson was part of a clinical trial (see more details on this at the end of the story) and started chemo Jan. 19, 2023. Her regimen was 12 weeks of once-weekly Taxol infusions. A standard regimen – if she hadn’t been part of the trial – would’ve lasted 18 weeks.

After chemo came surgery. Surgery indicates to doctors how well chemo worked. “It’s like spraying Roundup and then checking a few days later to see if your weeds are gone,” Turk said. “Shannon had a complete pathologic response at time of surgery, meaning the cancer was gone under the microscope.”

As part of the trial, Dickson had targeted therapy, using a drug called Phesgo, every three weeks for a whole year. Phesgo is a combination of two breast cancer treatments – Herceptin and Perjeta – that’s administered via injection. The injection took only 10 minutes, while an infusion would’ve taken 90 minutes or more.

At every turn, her team worked to minimize the time she spent in treatment.

For instance, she got “supercharged” radiation every weekday for three weeks. A typical radiation regimen would have lasted six weeks. Instead, doctors doubled the dose of radiation, but shortened the course by half. Her oncologist, Dr. Lance Lassiter of Novant Health Cancer Institute - Ballantyne, said, “The total dose is the same. It’s just that the per-day dose is higher.”

She didn’t suffer the painful side effects – like radiation burns – some do. But the cumulative effects of 12 weeks of chemo caused nausea, vertigo, fatigue. Nausea medicine helped.

She wore a “cold cap” while getting chemo and never lost her hair, although she had prepared her children for that possibility. “We wanted them to know about side effects they might notice,” she said. “We told them if there were any noticeable effects, it wasn’t from cancer. It was the treatment. We said that if I lost my hair, it was a sign that treatment was working.”

After finishing chemo April 11, 2023, she was ready for the next hurdle: surgery.

The least invasive surgery

When she first met Turk, it was one more in a dizzying schedule of doctor’s appointments, tests and scans. “I felt like I was drowning and gasping for air and grasping for hope,” she said. But the two clicked immediately. “When I walked out, I thought: I can exhale,” she said. “He has a great bedside manner and cracks jokes at the right time to put you at ease.”

The Dicksons discovered that the church where they first met is the church Turk attends. Toward the end of their first appointment, the couple and their doctor prayed together. “My husband and I just looked at each other like, ‘This is where we're supposed to be.’” (Turk is also medical director of surgical oncology at Novant Health in the greater Charlotte region and adjunct assistant professor of surgery at the UNC School of Medicine.)

“Having the peace of God with you when you're walking this path is indescribable,” she added. “It really is the peace that surpasses all understanding. And when that peace is connected to your doctors, who are literally saving your life, it’s remarkable.”

When she saw Turk the second time, it was to discuss surgery.