A blog co-authored by a Mother & Daughter who survived Breast Cancer
This year I celebrated my 27th Cancerversary. I am well aware that I am one of the lucky ones, as I know many who lost the battle. So, when my daughter, Janis, asked me to co-author this blog with my other daughter and breast cancer survivor, Annamarie, I felt it was a privilege…as I am alive and here to share my experience as a Breast Cancer Survivor.
I have never shared my breast cancer story in a public setting before. I am a pretty private person, so much so, that the only people who knew I even had breast cancer were close family members and two of my friends.
March 1991: There I was, wiping the steam from a post-shower bathroom mirror, when I spotted something odd. A red rash on my right breast. I waited a couple of days to see if it would go away, but it didn’t. I then made an appointment with my doctor to have it checked out. And that’s when the series of tests took place: mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, etc.
Once the tests all came back, my doctor’s office called to schedule a follow-up appointment. When my doctor walked into the room, I can tell something was up. He had a concerned look on his face. And then he said it, “Mrs. Gaudelli, you have breast cancer”. I am a woman of great faith, but when those words landed upon my ears, I went to a dark place and thought to myself, “am I going to die?”. At the time, I was a healthy 56-year-old woman who was fortunate enough to come from a family void of cancer. Heart disease and Parkinson’s, yes – but not cancer. How was this happening?
This diagnosis was especially hard for me because I knew I would have to slow down and be taken care of. That part I was challenged with because I was the one who had taken care of people my whole life – my parents, my husband, my kids, my friends, etc.. I was always a strong, independent woman, that lived her life helping others, so this was a very vulnerable (and dare I say, uncomfortable) situation for me. So, I did what I could to fight this beast, without having to worry and burden my loved ones.
After the shock wore off of the initial diagnosis, those dark thoughts I speak to above dissipated, and I relied on my faith in God to get me through. I WAS NOT going to let cancer defeat me. I had too much to live for. So, I began the battle. The battle every person diagnosed with breast cancer has gone through. The battle that gives way to the title of warrior. For a warrior soldiers on, fighting the good fight, determined to see the light and praying and hoping for a happy, victorious ending.
The cancer was in my right breast, located close to my nipple. I had a lumpectomy, where they removed my entire nipple and a small portion of my breast. I was in the hospital for three days, when I asked to return home. Whereas I had drains in me, and was a bit exhausted, I was itching to get back to life as normal. Against my doctor’s wishes, the next day I was food shopping alongside my daughter, Janis. I slowly got back to my normal routine because, for my own sanity, I needed to. If I was going to beat this beast, I needed to show it that it wasn’t going to keep me from living my life.
After my surgery, I went for six weeks of radiation treatments. With each session, I imagined the cancer being zapped out of me. I could sense victory…and I was right. Thank you, God.
I had thought the worst was behind me until 2017 rolled around, where I received a call from my daughter Annamarie, telling me she too was diagnosed with breast cancer. Whereas I had no family history of breast cancer, I realized my children do now. My stomach dropped out from under me. I felt horrible, like I passed this beast of a disease down to her and felt responsible in some way. Mom guilt is a thing and never goes away.
I watched my daughter battle breast cancer much like I did: with fierce determination to beat it. She went through much more than I did. But through it all, I proudly observed her positivity, perseverance, and bravery. We both knew to keep the faith, aware that storms don’t last forever.
Stay well, everyone
My mom was 56 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I started going for regular yearly mammograms from the age of 30. Every time I would go it was a process. I had dense breasts, so yearly routine mammograms turned into an added ultrasound each time as well.
When I was 40, there was a mass that was measured in my breast that had changed, so the radiologist ordered a biopsy which was done right in the office. It came back benign.
At that point, I knew that one day I would have Breast Cancer. It was a feeling that I had 16 more years to think about every time I went for my mammogram & ultrasound.
At the age of 50, a new mass was needing a biopsy. This biopsy had precancerous cells, and was removed.
Yearly mammograms and ultrasounds now turned into every 6 months, with each time being a waiting game. Waiting for the day they said, “You have cancer.”
That day came in February 2017. I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in my left breast. I went to see a surgeon who recommended I have a lumpectomy. This would also mean, I would need radiation and cancer medication. I have heard horror stories of the side effects of cancer medicines and knew I did not want that option. I also knew that it was probably only a matter of time before the cancer would return either in the same breast or the other. How I knew that, I can not logically explain, but my gut was telling me that it was time to say goodbye to my boobs.
Without any hesitation, I had scheduled a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Yes, I opted for the double, even though there was no detection of cancer in my other breast. Having the mastectomy meant that I wouldn’t need any further treatment. No medicine or radiation. I also opted for the double mastectomy because my initial gut feeling had come true, so why would my other breast be sparred?
A week after my surgery I received a call from my surgeon with my pathology report. The conversation went something like this: “Hi Annamarie, I have your report back. Well, I am happy to say that you made the right decision. There were pre-cancerous cells that went undetected in your good breast.” I replied: “You mean even with the MRI, it was not detected?” His answer was, “That’s correct.”
I am not writing this to persuade anyone to make the same decision I did. I am writing this as a PSA to make sure everyone gets their yearly exams. My decision was mine to make, just as another woman’s decision is hers to make. Educate yourself. Know all of your options.
And speaking of options, having the double mastectomy was only one of the decisions I had to make. The other was the type of reconstruction I would have. If there could be a perk in having a double mastectomy, I guess it would be the fact that I was going to have a brand new set of perky sisters!
I had two options for my reconstruction. The simplest, if you could call it simple, was having implants. This required me to have expanders placed in my chest until the muscle has stretched enough to make room for implants. The more complicated was having DIEP Flap Surgery.
DIEP FLAP reconstruction is surgery in which blood vessels called deep inferior epigastric perforators (DIEP), as well as the skin and fat connected to them, are removed from the lower abdomen and transferred to the chest to reconstruct a breast after mastectomy. This surgery takes between 12-14 hours. Being under anesthesia for that long is a scary thought! Anyone that knows me well, knows that I was obese until about 25 years ago. Belly fat was in abundance back then. Well, flash ahead to my appointment with my plastic surgeon, and I was told I did not have enough belly fat for the DIEP reconstruction. If that’s not irony, I don’t know what is! So I felt my only option was to go with the implants.
That led to a year of pain and suffering. My chest was in constant pain, and my boobs, even after the expanders were removed and replaced with the implants, felt like tortoise shells. My plastic surgeon informed me that I had Capsular Contracture, which is when a tissue capsule forms that is unusually hard and dense. The capsule tightens around and squeezes the implant. His recommendation was to remove the implants and have new ones implanted. Now, I am by no means an expert, but if my body rejected implants already, what would prevent my body from doing the same thing again. I knew I had to find another option, and another plastic surgeon.
During my yearly visit to my OBGYN, who is also a breast cancer survivor, she asked me how I was doing. I explained to her about the Capsular Contracture. Immediately she asked why I didn’t consider DIEP. I told her that I did not have enough belly fat. She recommended I go see her plastic surgeon who was a leading authority in DIEP surgery.
That’s when I met my savior, Dr Joshua Levine. He also confirmed that I did not have enough belly fat, but I did have enough fat on my outer thighs to do the surgery. He was upfront and said this was not a common surgery, but was confident it could work. I immediately knew I could trust him, and that this was what I needed to do.
He spent 12 hours in the operating room reconstructing my body. After months of recovery, my quality of life was finally returning to normal. Oh, and another added perk: The fat on my thighs was removed, so I not only got the boobs of a twenty-year-old, but my thighs were rid of unwanted skin and fat.
I’m making this sound like it was simple. Believe me, it wasn’t! If it was not for my amazing husband, daughter, family, and friends pitching in and supporting me through all of this, it would not have been possible. It was two years of recovery, both physically and emotionally.
I think the thing I most want people to take away from this is that I never once had a “Woe is me” moment. I was positive throughout it all. I pushed myself to get better. I pushed myself to get back to work. I pushed myself back to my normal life. I never once thought that I wasn’t going to be ok. I remember my Mom’s experience and how she handled it all, and followed suit.
Staying positive is key, as is always going with your gut! YOUR gut, not someone else’s gut. Be in control and know that you are the person who determines how your story plays out.
Now go book your Mammos, Ladies,
Annamarie Gaudelli Mastroberardino (Cancer-free since May 22, 2017)
Frances Gaudelli is a devoted mother of four children (Fred, Annamarie, Robert and Janis), and a loving grandmother to her four loves: Halle, Reese, Jadyn and Kellan. She is a native of Harrison, NY, spending 26 years as a retiree in Scottsdale, AZ. as most New Yorkers do, she returned back home and currently resides Harrison, NY.
Annamarie Mastroberardino is co-owner of New York Performing Arts Center, a children’s performing arts training studio in Harrison, NY. She is also the director of NYPAC’s SHOWSTOPPERS musical theatre productions, as well an author of 4 original musical theatre productions created specifically for SHOWSTOPPERS. Annamarie has a passion for all things dealing with children and musical theatre. She has been married to her soulmate for 32 years. She is especially proud of her best creation: Her daughter Halle. Annamarie’s ideal outing is going to see a Broadway show. She is especially happy to report that she is celebrating 2.5 years cancer-free!