What My Breast Cancer Journey Taught Me About Life

The word "survivor" can have many different meanings depending on your life experiences.

When I was a teen, it meant my mom who beat Ovarian Cancer. In my 20s, it meant a ridiculous night out with my best friends from high school set to Destiny’s Child song “Survivor”. In my 30s, it took on a whole new meaning. I AM A SURVIVOR.

I had the honor of previously writing for SN for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For those new to my story, my name is Gabby, I am 36-years-old and live in Merrick, Long Island with my rock Marc (married 10 years!) and our two nuggets, Riley and Pierce.

From the time I was 21, I have been under surveillance at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NYC due to my family’s extensive cancer history. Every 3-6 months, I was seen by an OB and the Breast Surveillance team, while appointments included ultrasounds, MRI’s, and mammograms. At 28-years-old I discovered I had the BRCA1 mutation. This dramatically increases your likelihood of having breast and ovarian cancer. The average age of diagnosis for ovarian cancer and breast cancer is 40 and 45+, respectively. Based on this info, my plan of attack was to have a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy by 40.

I always took my family history very seriously and did everything right (my daily mantra!). However, life throws you curveballs. At a standard appointment with my breast doctor on July 13th, 2018, a tiny lump was discovered on my right side by Dr. Mangino (my angel!). Once declared suspicious, I got a biopsy.

July 18th, 2018 was the worst day of my life. “You have Stage 1 Triple Negative Breast Cancer. You will need surgery to remove the tumor, and likely have 8 rounds of chemotherapy.”  

Breast cancer at 34?! My mom and aunt both had ovarian cancer, so in my mind, I always envisioned that if I ever got diagnosed it would be that type. After it sunk in, I decided I was going to handle this like Gabby Stoller. I had no choice but to survive (my babies need me). I am often described as a ray of sunshine; I knew if I was just myself, continued smiling, and made getting better my full-time job, I would be okay. I walked into every chemo session and surgery ready to rock, and quickly became BFF with my MSK team.  

Fast forward to now, I am almost 2 years past my last treatment and 2.5 years since my double mastectomy (where I was technically declared CANCER FREE!). In my version of “normal,” I try to focus on making each day great. Most days I am incredibly successful, but I definitely have my moments.

This journey has shaped me in so many ways. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Dates are permanently ingrained in your brain. Instead of dwelling on the negative associations, I try to celebrate them.  

  • Doctor appointments are terrifying. I go every three months for a checkup and despite feeling fabulous, I am a nervous wreck. I have finally accepted this feeling (it’s just one day!). Once I hit my 3- and 5-year mark, I know I will feel at ease (huge milestones for Triple Negative!).

  • Your mental health functions in tandem with your physical health. I listen to my body, adjusted my diet, eat as clean as possible, and use clean products. Mentally, I am STRONGER than ever now. Great therapists, music, meditation, family, and incredible friendships are my keys to success.

  • I have never been in better shape. I have always been an avid exerciser, but have stepped it up a notch. My doctors shared data around the importance of exercise and staying healthy post-cancer.

  • OWN IT! My family, friends, and husband always made me feel beautiful. I lost all of my hair and while that was not easy, I owned each phase of growth (GI Jane, to a pixie, to now shoulder length). If you carry yourself high, everyone else will respect you for it! Also, while going through chemo, you realize that everyone has an obsession with hair. All they can talk about when they see you is how long it got…it gets old quickly!

  • Silver linings! I never thought my experience with cancer would prepare me for a real-life pandemic. It is much easier to quarantine when everyone else has to; you have so much less FOMO and know how to keep yourself mentally stable.

  • There are misconceptions about being a survivor and having HAD cancer (keyword is HAD!). Some people will never really accept that the worst is behind you. As I said, I prefer positivity. When COVID hit, I received so many messages about being immune-compromised. It felt SO good to share how awesome my bloodwork has been the last year, and my susceptibility is no higher than anyone else.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating and you can react in a variety of ways.

You can be silent or you can leverage your experience to help others. I am so proud of how I handled it. I documented it on my blog and continue to speak publicly on panels. I am constantly connected to women who get diagnosed or are debating proactive surgery.  

While I am a survivor, so are my family and friends. They were my rocks. My chemo suite was always filled with so much love. Many of my friends have since undergone genetic testing and some made decisions to have proactive double mastectomies (so proud of you!).  

October has always been a special month for me. It is my birthday and I love nothing more than a birthday. Since 2018, the month has taken on a whole new meaning. I rock pink more than ever, raise money for charity in lieu of gifts, and use the time to reflect and recognize my strength (cue Britney Spears “Stronger” background music!).    

As my birthday present, I ask all of you SN readers to perform a breast exam. After this month, set a calendar reminder to do this for the first of every month. Check for anything that feels unusual and look for lumps, changes in size or shape, fluid, or irregular thickening of tissue–get tips on how to do it here. I am grateful to be healthy, to still be that sprinkle of sunshine, to get to see my kids grow up, and to be able to share my story with you.