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Taking Flight With Cancer: von Gal Doesn’t Let Breast Cancer Keep Her From the World

One summer day in 2017, Anna von Gal went into her routine screening mammogram without much worry.

She had the mammogram through a clinic at Southwire Co., where her husband worked. When something suspicious showed up on her mammogram, the clinic sent her to Tanner Breast Health for further evaluation. She was quickly diagnosed with stage I breast cancer. Anna von Gal

“The moral of my story is: Get your mammogram,” said von Gal. “There is nothing in my family history and I wasn’t having any symptoms. This was totally out of the blue.”

Originally from Sweden, von Gal came to the United States to attend nursing school. She met her husband and the couple settled in Vermont, where they raised their children.

Later in his career, her husband accepted a job at Southwire and they moved to Carrollton. While living in Carrollton, she frequently traveled back to Vermont where she worked as needed as an operating room nurse. After her cancer diagnosis, she retired from nursing.

“I’m 67, so it was time to retire anyway,” said von Gal. “I eased into retirement with my cancer treatment.”

A New Role

Having spent her career in health care, she had seen people face serious health problems. But she had little experience with what it was like to be the patient.

“I had always been very healthy and I didn’t really worry about breast cancer, but being an OR nurse, I have seen a lot of sick patients,” she said.

She said she was extremely fortunate in her experience with breast cancer.

“I was so lucky it was an early diagnosis,” said von Gal. “It was so easy that I really can’t complain at all.”

Her treatment lasted more than a year and included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. However, she was pleasantly surprised that her experience was very positive.

“People think it’s going to be horrible, but it’s really not,” von Gal said. “Cancer treatment has come a long way.”

Her breast specialist was Raul Zunzunegui, MD, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist who is board-certified in surgery. Bradley Larson, MD, a board-certified medical oncologist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers oversaw her chemotherapy treatment and Richard Bland, MD, a board-certified radiation oncologist with Tanner Radiation Oncology, oversaw her radiation treatment.  

“They are a wonderful team,” von Gal said. “They are experts who are so devoted to their patients.”

In addition to her physicians, her nurses played a major role in her treatment.

“I give the nurses a lot of credit,” she said. “They sit down with you and explain everything, and if you have any questions you just call the nurses and they call you right back.”

At Tanner Breast Health, patients have the support of a specialized nurse navigator, who can connect patients to support services, from different classes to behavioral health services, von Gal said. Tanner’s nurse navigator also helped her set up everything she needed for her treatment, she explained.

“It really takes on a life of its own once you get a diagnosis,” von Gal said. “They take care of everything for you.”

Starting Treatment

Her treatment began with outpatient surgery — a wedge resection to remove the breast tissue with cancer.

“It was quick, and I went home a couple hours later,” she said.

She also got a port — a device that is placed under the skin and has a thin tube that goes into a large vein — so she could begin chemotherapy. The port stays in place for many weeks or months, making it much easier to administer medicines like chemotherapy drugs intravenously. It also makes it easier to draw blood.

After starting chemotherapy, she expected to feel nauseated and fatigued, but she didn’t.

“I was so lucky — the only thing I had was indigestion,” said von Gal, adding that she lost her hair and eyebrows during chemotherapy.

Finally, she had radiation.

“They kept saying I would feel tired from radiation, but I felt normal,” she said.

Her treatment continued after radiation because one of her two tumors was hormone-receptor positive.

Because one of the tumors was HER2-positive, she was able to have an immune-targeted therapy called Herceptin. She received Herceptin through her port for an entire year.

“Herceptin works by attaching itself to the HER2 receptors on breast cancer cells,” said Dr. Larson. “The HER2 receptors are proteins that are like antennae on the surface of the cells. They receive signals to grow and multiply, spreading the breast cancer.

“When Herceptin attaches to the HER2 receptors, it blocks them from receiving signals to grow, thus helping slow or stop the growth of breast cancer,” he said. “It’s one way we’re able to target our therapies to the exact type of cancer cells we’re fighting, so we can stop them from growing or spreading.”

An Active Life

While her treatments attacked cancer cells, von Gal carried on with her life. She sailed through the treatment with minimal side effects and disruption to her daily routine.

“I have always traveled a lot, and I still did during my treatment,” said von Gal, who traveled to Vermont several times and even lived in Hawaii for three months during chemotherapy while her patient care team at Tanner coordinated her care with an oncologist in Hawaii to facilitate her chemotherapy on the Big Island until she returned to Carrollton.

Through it all, she said Tanner’s staff made the process as stress-free and easy as possible.

“I never waited more than five minutes for an appointment,” said von Gal. “It was so convenient because I lived just minutes from Tanner.”

She had the port removed in April 2019, but she continues to take an estrogen inhibitor medication.

Von Gal is grateful to be healthy and living life to the fullest with her family, which includes two daughters and two grandchildren, as well as her 93-year-old mother who still lives independently in Sweden.

Life after cancer has been busy and productive for von Gal. Her husband recently retired and they moved back to Vermont, where they are building a home and serving as their own general contractors.

“I feel great — I feel totally normal,” von Gal said. “My hair is different from being on an estrogen inhibitor, but that’s a very small price to pay for being alive.”