Patient Stories

Saved by Self-Exam

Paula Steele Brancato has always understood the importance of conducting a monthly breast self-exam, but she never had made it part of her regular routine.

“I did breast exams, but not on a monthly basis,” says Brancato, 66, of Ipswich. Her perspective changed a few years ago, when she happened to give herself a breast self-exam after reading an article about screening. 


Brancato was in disbelief when she detected a lump and immediately scheduled an appointment with North Shore Medical Center gynecologist Julie McCullough, M.D., who then referred her to the Mass General/North Shore Breast Health Center in Danvers for a mammogram and biopsy. To Brancato’s surprise, she was diagnosed with a fast-growing form of breast cancer called HER2/neu-positive. 

HER2/neu-positive breast cancer tests positive for a protein called human growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells. HER2/neupositive breast cancer tends to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. However, treatments that specifically target HER2 are very effective. 

“After receiving my diagnosis, my immediate thought was one of resolve,” says Brancato, the mother of two grown children and two grandchildren. “I prepared myself to endure what lay ahead.” 

Brancato was not new to health challenges, having been diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of two. Due to her health history, she knew she wanted to be involved in her treatment, which for her meant learning as much as she could about her cancer and what she was about to face.

“Patients should be proactive and participate in the decision process in health treatments,” says Brancato. “Most important to me is to have a physician who is open to my concerns and takes the time to really listen, especially if I know I will need to work with him or her through an illness.” 

Brancato met with four different physicians at four different hospitals and explored her options before choosing to receive her care at the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center. “After meeting with my care team, I felt confident that I would be receiving the same care that I would in Boston, but with the convenience of being close to home,” she says. “The Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center offered comprehensive care, outstanding support and convenience.” 

Jeanne Yu, M.D., a Mass General Cancer Center and NSMC breast surgeon based in Danvers, performed Brancato’s lumpectomy. That morning, Brancato recalls waking up and feeling very uncertain about her future and how her family would get through what was ahead. But she also knew she was in good hands with her care team. Following surgery, she worked with the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center team including oncologist Erica Linden, M.D., and radiation oncologist James McIntyre, M.D., to begin her chemotherapy and radiation treatment. 

“Paula had many decisions to make about surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and did so with extraordinary grace, asking many questions and participating in her care,” says Dr. Linden. After 12 months of treatment, Brancato completed her therapy and continues to see her doctors for follow-up exams. “I see her regularly for surveillance. Fortunately, she continues to show no evidence of disease.”

“Women should definitely be more proactive about caring for themselves,” says Brancato, who now schedules her self-exam on her calendar as a standing appointment. “I encourage all my friends to perform monthly breast self exams and to have an annual mammogram. Had I not done a self-exam that day, who knows when I would have found my lump? Things could have turned out very differently.”