Cancer survivor remains optimistic in midst of ongoing battle

September 07, 2021
LaToya Wilson getting out of pool.
LaToya Wilson’s cancer journey began in 2012 when she noticed a walnut-size lump in her right breast after giving birth. Photos by Marquel Coaxum

LaToya Wilson, 46, loves Sunday night dinners with her family. The weekly gathering has become a source of strength and escape for the mother of four who has battled cancer for the last nine years.

“If I get bad news, I say to myself, ‘Well, it could be worse’ because it could be,” she said.

Wilson has had her fair share of bad news. She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2012 and has since had recurrences in her hip, skull bone, ribs, spine and liver. Doctors said Wilson’s 9-year journey has been remarkable in itself, as the average life expectancy for a patient with metastatic disease is much shorter than that. Despite that, Wilson is one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet.

The Charleston-native has had more rounds of chemotherapy at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center than she cares to remember. Chemotherapy and hormone therapy have been part of her regular routine since her initial diagnosis in August 2012, when her youngest son, Daniel, was just 11 months old.

Despite numerous setbacks, Wilson continues to fight. “My faith in God and my kids give me strength because they were young, and they needed their momma. I wanted to live. I never have said, ‘Why me?’ I just didn’t understand it, and I didn’t feel like it was fair.”

Despite her ongoing battle, Wilson is grateful to be alive, doing the things she likes the most – swimming at the pool, relaxing on the beach and creating elaborate press-on nails. While she knows time isn’t guaranteed, she also knows something else – she isn’t done fighting cancer.

“My ultimate goal is to have my cancer gone one day,” Wilson said. “I hope that happens. If there is a treatment available to me, even though it may be a tough one, then that is what I’ll do.”

Persevering through it all

Wilson’s cancer journey began in 2012 when she noticed a walnut-size lump in her right breast months after giving birth to her youngest son. She went to her primary care doctor, who told her not to worry about it unless it got bigger or began to hurt. Months later, Wilson was on her way to MUSC Women’s Health for a second opinion.

LaToya Wilson and her sons playing pool basketball. 
Wilson and her sons playing pool basketball.

“As soon as I saw the doctor, I knew something was wrong because her eyes got big, and she asked me why I was just now coming to get checked out.”

Soon afterward, Wilson was at Hollings to get a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy the same day. She was diagnosed with stage 3 hormone positive breast cancer and began weekly chemotherapy treatments at the age of 37. “The goal of the initial chemotherapy was to get the tumor to shrink so they wouldn’t have to take the whole breast, but it didn’t shrink enough.”

Chemotherapy was tough on the young mother, who had to rely on her parents to care for her newborn for three months. Wilson said she became too weak and sick to take care of her son – one of the toughest parts of her cancer journey.

Fearful of cancer eventually forming in her left breast too, Wilson decided in February of 2013 to have a bilateral mastectomy. The aftermath of the procedure didn’t come without pain and tough days, but Wilson persevered through it all.

Pathology done during surgery revealed a change in Wilson’s cancer biomarkers, said Frank Brescia, M.D., Wilson’s oncologist at Hollings. Brescia said Wilson’s cancer was now also HER2 positive, which wasn’t shown in the initial pathology report. Doctors also discovered that eight of the nine lymph nodes biopsied showed macro-metastasis.

“LaToya’s tumor in her right breast was over 6 centimeters at the time of surgery,” Brescia said. “With the amount of cancer and the fact that it was now HER2 positive, the chance for recurrence was high. It was something we had to be on the lookout for.”

Wilson underwent 30 rounds of radiation for six weeks, followed by more chemotherapy, this time also targeting HER2. Brescia said that at the time, the treatment appeared to be working well.

“There was no clinical or radiographic evidence of metastatic disease,” he said. “That didn’t mean she was in remission or cured; I just couldn’t see disease anymore. However, due to the size and scope of her cancer, we knew we weren’t out of the woods yet.”

Wilson was pleased, nonetheless, to get some good news. “I was happy, but at the same time, I was afraid that it would come back,” she said. “I was afraid to live. I didn’t make plans for birthdays and holidays. I felt like I had the boogey man over my shoulder all the time.” 

Scans of Wilson’s lungs at the time revealed nodules that were too small to biopsy. The discovery required Wilson to return to Hollings for routine scans due to her risk of recurrence.

Wilson continued endocrine therapy, but over time decided to stop putting her life on hold because of her cancer diagnosis. She revived her dream of pursuing education to allow her to  work in the medical field while maintaining her treatments at Hollings. Enrolling at Virginia College, she completed a degree to become a medical assistant. “I always wanted to be a nurse, but once I had cancer, I really set my mind on joining the health care field. The experience gave me more empathy and compassion for people who are sick.”

LaToya Wilson and her sons posing for a photo in the pool. 
Wilson was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2012 and has since had recurrences in her hip, skull bone, ribs, spine and liver.

Wilson landed a job at a local doctor’s office, but in 2015, she became ill again. In February of 2015, following trouble breathing and severe exhaustion, Wilson went to the MUSC Health Emergency Department and was diagnosed with a pleural effusion, which is when excess fluid builds in the lung lining. It wasn’t an uncommon condition for cancer patients to develop, but due to her high risk for recurrence, doctors conducted scans of her lungs immediately and made another troubling discovery – Wilson’s cancer was back and upgraded from stage 3 breast cancer to stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

“The doctor came in crying. She told me I had a recurrence, and it was affecting my lung, and I was just numb. I thought this was it and asked if I was going to die.”

Following the discovery, Brescia informed Wilson about a clinical trial for HER2 positive metastatic disease patients, using the drugs Herceptin and Capecitabine and an experimental drug called Tucatinib, which has since been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Wilson was excited about the new opportunity, but her family was strongly against it.

“They thought I was just going to be a guinea pig, and I had to explain that wasn’t the case,” she said. “I had to educate them about the importance of clinical trials. I told them that the drugs we have today are thanks in part to clinical trials.”

Wilson said she hopes to serve as an example to others in underserved communities in South Carolina. She is quick to point out that resources like free mammograms are available to women to prevent or catch their breast cancer much earlier than she did. “Most of the time cancer isn’t something we talk about in the African American community,” she said. “For some people, they don’t have insurance, so they don’t go to the doctor because they don’t want a big medical bill.”

Wilson remains a big advocate for clinical trials at Hollings. She said she hopes that her involvement in the trial allows doctors to tailor and improve treatment for future patients.

After enrolling in the trial, Brescia said Wilson did well for a while. “The amazing thing with LaToya is that she always seemed to respond well to the treatment she was given at the time,” he said.

Wilson still was taking oral medication for her cancer in 2018 when she received yet another blow. Following intense and growing pain in her hip, Wilson returned to the doctor for an X-ray. The images revealed the cancer had spread again – this time to her hip bone. Wilson had surgery, followed by months of rehab and five more weeks of radiation.

"Bad things happen, but there is always a silver lining. When I sit back and think about all of the women on Facebook who have friended me and are watching my journey, I realized I was being a light and an inspiration for them."
— LaToya Wilson

The new recurrence wasn’t the only thing that had changed, however – Brescia said the makeup of her metastatic disease had also changed again and no longer was HER2 positive. Brescia said this isn’t uncommon, as around 20% of breast cancer patients experience changes in their biomarkers. “At that time, Wilson no longer qualified for the clinical trial because she wasn’t HER2 positive,” he said. “We began treating her with drugs used for hormone positive breast cancer.”

In January of 2021, Wilson received news of yet another setback – doctors had discovered her cancer had now spread to her skull bone, spine, ribs and liver. Due to her past experiences with chemotherapy, Wilson said doctors wanted to try something different and put her on a targeted drug to see how she responded. “In March I started the drug Xgeva, which is supposed to strengthen your bones, and Lupron, which is supposed to suppress the ovaries.”

In June, scans revealed that the cancer had grown in her skull bone, spine and ribs despite the targeted therapy. On July 1st, Wilson returned to Hollings to begin chemotherapy once again.

Serving as a light to others

Throughout her cancer journey, Wilson has remained positive and an inspiration to other cancer patients, survivors and the community in large.

“Bad things happen, but there is always a silver lining,” she said. “When I sit back and think about all of the women on Facebook who have friended me and are watching my journey, I realized I was being a light and an inspiration for them.”

Wilson’s experience at Hollings has caused her family to grow to include the doctors and nurses who have cared for her over the years. “They’ve always matched my motivation and my strength to try and beat this disease.”

Brescia said her battle highlights the advancements made in cancer care.

“There’s a certain pride in knowing that I had a part in extending and bettering a patient’s life. I’ll continue to treat LaToya with anything that is reasonable that I believe will make a difference,” he said. “I don’t know if, or when, the time will come that I will run out of treatment options for her. What I do know is I’m not there yet.”

On July 1, Wilson began the first of nine cycles of Abraxane, a type of chemotherapy, at Hollings. She remains hopeful that treatment can make her feel better. She said she and her sons are planning a trip to Jamaica to enjoy more beach time as a family.

“Battling cancer does get tough, but at the end of the day, I’m still here. As long as I’ve got a little bit left in me to keep on moving forward, then that is what I’m going to do.”