Courtesy of Roswell Park’s Cancer Talk Blog

Healthy eating and exercise were always a priority for Theresa, who had completed five marathons. So were the yearly mammograms she had since age 40. It was shocking to feel a large lump in her breast the day before her scheduled mammogram in September 2022 at age 69.

During a 3½-hour appointment, Theresa had two mammograms and an ultrasound, which revealed three lumps in her breast and one in her lymph nodes which needed to be biopsied. Two weeks later, she and her husband met with a surgical and medical oncologist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, and was told that she had stage 3 triple negative breast cancer, a rare but aggressive type that primarily affects women younger than 40 who are African American, Hispanic, or have a BRCA1 gene mutation, none of which applied to Theresa.

Roswell Park’s breast cancer experts recommended 12 consecutive weeks of chemotherapy with an infusion of the immunotherapy drug Keytruda every three weeks, and a final cycle of Keytruda with ‘red devil’ chemotherapy – so named because of the drug’s red color and often harsh side effects. The team answered Theresa’s questions honestly, and respected her decision to undergo a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction. “They were compassionate and approachable, and I felt confident in their expertise and bedside manner,” says Theresa.

Theresa joined an online support group for triple negative breast cancer patients and visited Roswell Park’s 11 Day Power Play Cancer Resource Center, where she borrowed Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. She took part in Roswell Park’s complimentary Wig and Head Covering Program, trying out beautiful headscarves and wigs, and was surprised to learn that some wigs were equipped with earpieces for hearing issues. Visiting Elevate Salon before she lost her hair made it possible to match the wig to her own hair color and style.

Theresa says her best gift was the gratitude journal she received from her son, daughter, and grandkids. “Journaling was one of the most cathartic things for me during treatment,” Theresa recalls with emotion. “Losing my hair was traumatic, and I had many of the usual side effects of chemotherapy, including fatigue, dry mouth, bloody noses, and fingernails turning black. But writing even one thing to be grateful for each day – feeling my tumors shrinking, seeing a beautiful cardinal perched on a snowy tree, watching a sunset, feeling better about myself after a visit to the Elevate Salon, or getting a visit or food and support from friends, helped remind me how good life can be, which got me through the worst days.”

Theresa continues to heal, and will begin radiation. Reflecting on her journey, Theresa advises others to get their mammograms and practice breast self-exams. She also talks about the importance of supporting others. “Until I had cancer myself, I never understood how gestures like visiting, bringing food, offering to shop, and asking friends how you can help them, really make a difference while they are going through treatment. Even during the roughest times, try to find at least one thing to be grateful for each day. I will forever be grateful for so many things, including all of the compassion, care, and resources available to me at Roswell Park.”