Overcoming obstacles to beat the odds
Faith, loved ones, and a multidisciplinary care team all played a role in successfully treating an aggressive type of breast cancer
Devout Christian. Supportive wife and mother. Compassionate community leader. Loving sister and daughter. Nonprofit founder and executive. These are just a few of the myriad roles Brenda Atkins Lockley has inhabited throughout her lifetime. She never imagined that breast cancer survivor and activist would be added to the list.
Brenda had no history of breast cancer in her family, so she wasn’t sure what to think after unexpectedly discovering a lump on her breast the same night of her 40th wedding anniversary celebration. She says, “It was so prominent and protruding that I wondered where the lump had been before. And when it wasn’t getting any smaller a week later, I thought this could be serious.”
The joy she felt after commemorating a milestone anniversary with her husband, Elmore, and their loved ones was replaced by worry. “I’m a pretty confident person, but I quickly became fearful. So as a Christian, I asked God to remove my fear. I also scheduled a mammogram since I hadn’t had one in 12 years,” shares Brenda.
Given her symptoms, Brenda worked with her primary care physician, Kevin Kotar, DO, FAAFP, of Preferred Primary Care Physicians, to schedule a diagnostic mammogram at the St. Clair Hospital Breast Care Center. She leaned into her faith instead of the internet while awaiting her appointment, saying, “I’ve never been through anything like this, so I had to look to God. We have to pray when we don’t know what to do.”
After multiple imaging tests and a biopsy, Brenda learned that she had triple negative breast cancer—an aggressive type with a faster growth rate and higher risk of metastasis and recurrence that is more common among Black women. According to Dr. Kotar, “Brenda was very concerned about her health, rightfully so, and so she resolved she would be an active participant moving forward.”
Brenda also wanted Dr. Kotar, the physician who has cared for her and Elmore for more than eight years, to be part of her cancer journey. She shares, “I didn’t want to go through cancer without knowing somebody I trust was on my side. So I was glad to learn he would monitor things and get all the reports.”
Dr. Kotar explains, “We try to really make sure that we’re the home base for patients. So anything that they have done in health care, we are aware of it so that we can coordinate care or explain what results and testing may look like.”
Her unwavering faith, Dr. Kotar’s support, and the love of family and friends largely prepared Brenda for the journey ahead. She was also comforted by the fact that she would be in good hands at St. Clair Health. Not long before Brenda received her breast cancer diagnosis, Elmore completed treatment for prostate cancer at St. Clair Health. She says, “Elmore told me how impressed he was and how great everybody was as he went through the whole treatment process.”
Brenda’s care team included specialists Gaurav Goel, MD, FACP, and Felicia E. Snead, MD, FASTRO, of the St. Clair Hospital Cancer Center Affiliated with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, along with Sarwat B. Ahmad, MD, of St. Clair Medical Group Breast & General Surgery. Knowing the variety of treatment options to consider and decisions to be made can seem overwhelming to patients, these cancer experts made sure Brenda and her family not only understood but felt good about the proposed treatment plan during their initial consultations.
“My consultations are at least one hour or more so I can go through the biology of what’s going on, the disease stage, the prognosis, and what we’re going to do about it. We go through everything,” shares Dr. Ahmad. “Patients usually come to me with so much fear and uncertainty, but I often see that anxiety melt away by the end of our conversation as we help make this curveball seem more manageable.”
Brenda’s personalized treatment plan included six months of chemotherapy and an immunotherapy regimen, followed by surgery, and finally radiation. Dr. Ahmad explains, “Most breast cancers are treated with surgery first, but Brenda’s type of breast cancer responds particularly well to chemotherapy, so we arranged for her to see a medical oncologist early in the process.”
Brenda was troubled after learning more from the care team about her diagnosis and how it would require aggressive treatment. Still, her faith remained a guiding light and source of strength as she began a series of chemotherapy treatments. After just her first appointment, Brenda was pleasantly surprised to find the lump in her breast begin to decrease in size. She emphasizes, “This thing shrunk more every day. I felt it was God’s way of reassuring me that this was working.”
This remarkable progress wasn’t the only reason Brenda looked forward to her weekly visits to the Cancer Center. She enjoyed spending time with the care team, saying, “Elmore and I felt welcomed and surrounded with love. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I thought, if these people make me feel this good, then God must be doing something.”
Though Brenda fondly remembers the good days during treatment, she also endured her fair share of bad days when immunotherapy drugs caused debilitating complications and the steroids used to treat the inflammation led to blood sugar spikes. Brenda says, “Inflammation spread throughout my body and joints so much that I couldn’t stand up, so they admitted me to St. Clair Hospital.”
These setbacks forced Brenda to learn humility, as she is a generous and kind individual who doesn’t readily ask for support—even when it’s needed. She clarifies, “For someone who has always been pretty confident, I had to be humble. It wasn’t easy, but God helped me to trust that the team of skilled providers were going to take care of me and make the right decisions for my health.”
“I talked with both Dr. Goel and Brenda to get a better idea of what she was experiencing so we could change the timing of tests and medications as needed, as well as eliminate anything that would be too painful for her at that time,” shares Dr. Ahmad. “I think she really appreciated that I called and also felt reassured about her ongoing treatment when I reinforced that it’s alright to make adjustments.”
Dr. Kotar adds, “There was good coordination between Drs. Ahmad and Goel, myself, and other providers who care for Brenda. Everyone was on the same page.”
The speedy response and seamless coordination enabled Brenda to successfully complete chemotherapy on time. She rang the bell after her final appointment not only to mark this significant milestone but to thank the care team, along with Elmore, for providing support at every step. Next, it was time for surgery.
Dr. Ahmad says, “Brenda had a really excellent response to the chemo, which allowed us to do just a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. I was so glad, as I didn’t want her to have to go through a big surgery or be off her feet too long afterward. I wanted her to be able to be present for her family.”
“I remember the morning of the surgery. I looked up. I saw Dr. Ahmad, who is vibrant and warm and very positive. And she just smiled at me,” shares Brenda. “I knew then that God was there with me. It was as if he was saying, she is focused and ready to take care of you. I knew I was in good hands.”
While the chemotherapy treatments effectively wiped out Brenda’s cancer cells, Dr. Ahmad proceeded with the surgery as planned to ensure all tests came back negative—which they did. Brenda was cancer free! Dr. Ahmad says, “Her complete pathological response to the chemotherapy is a good indicator for prognosis going forward. Still, the care team recommended Brenda complete radiation therapy under the guidance of Dr. Snead to reduce the risk of recurrence.”
Brenda will continue to follow up regularly with providers such as Dr. Ahmad and Dr. Kotar to check for recurrence. In the meantime, she is once again working to help her community—when she isn’t enjoying retirement with Elmore of course. She explains, “I said to Dr. Ahmad that if I come through this, and I fully expect to come through it, I want to partner with established health organizations and local churches to increase awareness among our communities.”
Activism is in Brenda’s blood, as she previously helped underserved youth in the area by incorporating and directing a nonprofit organization called Melting Pot Ministries. Now, she is finding ways to highlight a new cause close to her heart among our communities: breast cancer awareness and education.
“I trusted that God was going to heal me, and we came through this together, so now I want to tell the world,” says Brenda. “I want to tell everyone that we can do better, and we cannot just sit here when Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer and be affected by more aggressive subtypes like mine.”
Brenda has already begun spreading the word in small but meaningful ways. She asked her nieces to wear breast cancer awareness hats she purchased to encourage more conversations. She says, “You tell them to be more proactive. Ask them if they’re doing regular self-exams and getting annual mammograms—all the things I didn’t do.”
Additionally, Brenda shared testimony at her church—Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Library—and was stunned by the number of women who came to her afterward saying they too were breast cancer survivors. She strongly believes in sharing her story to not only inspire others to take charge of their health but to empower more women to share their stories. She says, “If you don’t share your pain, then you can’t celebrate the healing with them.”
SARWAT B. AHMAD, MD
Dr. Ahmad specializes in breast surgery and surgical oncology. She earned her medical degree at The Ohio State University College of Medicine before completing residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a fellowship in Complex General Surgical Oncology at UPMC. Dr. Ahmad previously served as a surgical oncologist at Mayo Clinic and assistant professor of surgery at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. She practices with St. Clair Medical Group. To contact Dr. Ahmad, please call 412.942.7850.