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Breast cancer: One woman defies death

Treatment at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital helps woman survive

Posted: February 23, 2009 1:16 a.m.
Updated: February 23, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Milli Pinckney underwent her last of eight chemotherapy treatments. Halfway through, tests revealed her tumor had disappeared but the treatments left her bald. Her husband doesn't mind but she uses a wig to make others comfortable.

Six months ago, Milli Pinckney felt a lump in her breast. After an ultrasound at the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, she got the news. It was a cancerous tumor.

"Of course, when they told me, I said, why me," explained Pinckney, a Santa Clarita resident for the past 23 years, "but in the very next breath I said, why not me?"

Fortunately for Pinckney, the cancer was caught in the first stage, due to her vigilance in regular self examinations.

"If I hadn't done the self exam, it would have been much worse because it was an aggressive cancer," said Pinckney. "It doubled in size in one month's time."

Last week, Pinckney underwent her last of eight chemotherapy treatments. Halfway through, tests revealed her tumor had disappeared.

"I did lose all of my hair, but that's minor," said Pinckney about the outcome. "Actually, I kind of like being bald. It's a fashion statement."

Pinckney said the chemo has slowed her down a little, but she still keeps up with her favorite activities - trips to Vegas, picnics on Castaic Lake and regular trips to the local Elephant Bar. While she is still undergoing tests and treatments, she attributes her recovery to a positive attitude.

"You don't want to give in to it because then you start to be a victim," said Pinckney. "I am not a victim."

One thing Pinckney can rest easy about is that she is being treated at one of the "best [hospitals] you can get, and right in our own back yard," according to Terry Bucknall, director of women's imaging at Newhall Memorial.

A seven-year study on breast-conserving surgery at the hospital, appearing this month in The Breast Journal, reports high-quality patient outcomes can be achieved in a community hospital comparable to large teaching institutions. This is good news, since nearly two-thirds of all breast cancer patients in the United States are treated at community hospitals.

"It validates everything we do here, technically and professionally," said Bucknall.

One important objective of the study was to evaluate the adequacy of the surgical removal of the primary tumor.

"I noticed that our local recurrence rates were lower than the accepted norm, so we decided to take a better look at that," said the hospital's Breast Center Medical Director, Gregory Senofsky, MD.

According to Senofsky, the standard of care when removing a tumor is to also remove 1-2mm of normal tissue surrounding the tumor, known as a "margin". This results in a 4 to 10 percent rate of the cancer returning.

"What I was trained to do was to remove a 5mm margin, which has only a 2 percent recurrence," said Senofsky. "This study basically resets the bar on how to do lumpectomies and what patients can expect if it is done this way."

The study tracked 185 cases at Newhall Memorial from 1997-2003, revealing a disease-free survival for early stage breast cancer of 91 percent.

"We have patients from all over the country that are coming to us now," said Senofsky. "We have an unbelievable team and it's because of this team that we can deliver these results."

What makes this team unique, said Senfosky, is that it consists of a specialized radiologist, a world class pathologist and a surgeon who can not only do the bigger lumpectomies, but also reconstructive maneuvers to maintain the quality of the breast - a process known as Oncoplactic surgery.

"Patients with breast cancer can look forward to keeping their breasts and getting better oncologic results," said Senofsky.

Colleen Shaffer lost both her breasts to the disease 10 years ago. She says Newhall Memorial has a great reputation.

"Breast cancer is not a death sentence," said Shaffer, Executive Director and Founder of Circle of Hope, a nonprofit organization that offers financial and emotional assistance to individuals with breast cancer who live, work or receive treatment in the Santa Clarita Valley.

"I should have been dead on April Fools Day in 2002 after the cancer came back in my liver and spine," said Shaffer. "Our 5K Walk for Hope this April 18th will mark seven years of defying death."

Circle of Hope has provided $90,000 in financial aid locally to breast cancer patients since 2004. Shaffer, a Santa Clarita resident since 1968, says the organization's philosophy is to take care of patients so they don't have to worry about the bills.

"No one needs that stress," she said. "Waiting for test results is bad enough."

"It's crucial that women get mammograms," adds Pinckney. "Most women say they don't want to go because it hurts. It only hurts for five minutes, but it saves your life for many many years."

Pinckney says it's also important to do self exams, not self diagnosis.

"I've learned that you don't take anything for granted and that your health is what gives you longevity," said Pinckney. "You have to heed the warnings of your body."

Pinckney's poise and good nature comes naturally since she conducts workshops for private businesses through her company, Miss Milli's Social and Professional Graces. She has a wig to cover her newly bald head, but she only wears it so other people don't feel uncomfortable.

"My husband of 23 years says my bald head is cute," says Pinckney. "Cancer isn't about beauty. It's about getting well and getting back to normal."

Numerous studies have shown that early detection saves lives and increases treatment options. For more information about breast cancer, visit,,


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