“When breast cancer came back, I found strength in choices I could control”

Nicole F., 35, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and in 2020. She has been in remission since January 2021.
Published December 16, 2021

As told to Katerina Gkionis

It was May 2020 when a routine mammogram revealed a small spot on my left breast. Though I’m only in my 30s, I had been down this road before, having survived stage II breast cancer in 2016. This time around, the spot turned out to be stage I triple negative breast cancer—an aggressive subtype. The news hit hard. On top of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and planning a wedding for that September, I now had a cancer recurrence to deal with.

The mindset that helped me cope: My oncologist explained that treatment options are limited for triple negative breast cancer. And if it comes back, it’s more likely than other types to spread. So even though cancer was found on just one side, I signed on for a bilateral mastectomy. I would also need four to six cycles of chemo.

I was supposed to get immediate reconstruction with the surgery, but a week before the combined procedure, my plastic surgeon had to enter quarantine. All this upheaval could have sent me into a spiral. Thankfully, my support system—my family, my friends, my now-husband—huddled around me and helped me focus on the positives: I was loved. The cancer was caught early. I could still recognize the good things happening in my life.

With my reconstruction postponed until February 2022, I went ahead and celebrated my bridal shower—it was at an indoor venue with 50 percent capacity and everyone wore masks—then had the double mastectomy just two days later.

Why extra support was key: I had experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress after my first bout with cancer, and this recurrence brought those feelings back to the surface. I joined an online support group for breast cancer survivors and “previvors”—those who opted to take preventive measures because they have a genetic mutation. At my first meeting, I heard from a woman who was diagnosed at my age and had been cancer-free for 12 years. Her story gave me hope. I also started speaking with a therapist every two to three weeks, which was helpful for working through body-image issues associated with my surgery.

The greatest wedding gift: With my fall wedding quickly approaching, my oncologist gave me some wonderful news: My bone scans and CT scans confirmed that the cancer hadn’t spread, so I could safely push out my chemotherapy treatments until after the celebration.

We had to change our venue 44 days before the big day because of restrictions, and we landed on a beautiful wedding outdoors under a huge tent. My wedding day was the best ever. The dress fit beautifully. I loved my hair—it had taken me four years to grow back!—and I felt amazing.

Some people go on a weeklong honeymoon after their wedding. Me? I immediately started chemo, which included cold-capping to help prevent hair loss. My daughter and stepdaughter were 7 and 10—definitely old enough to notice changes in my appearance—and I didn’t want to worry them. From September 2020 to January 2021, Mommy was going to the doctor; that’s all they needed to know.

How healthy choices sustain me: Something I’ve learned from my dual cancer experiences is that I feel happier and more in control when I’m doing everything I can to support my health. Like many survivors, I’m following a nutrition plan developed by my medical team. It emphasizes nutritious foods while cutting back on things like added sugar. As a Lifetime WW member since 2016, I’m all about this approach! The program has always encouraged me to eat fruits, veggies, and protein-rich foods.

My ongoing treatment involves two medications: aromatase inhibitors and ovarian suppression shots, both of which induce menopause. My energy levels and bone strength aren’t what they used to be, so I’ve made modifications to stay active. Walking has become very therapeutic, and I try to get in a few miles each week. I’ve also incorporated strength training into my routine to build up my bone strength, using arm weights, resistance bands, and ropes.

Managing day-to-day stress is important for my wellbeing. The meditations within the WW app really help with that.

The example I’m hoping to set: These days, I urge everyone I know to get annual checkups, to take precautions, and to follow up when something doesn’t feel right. I want my daughter and stepdaughter to understand that it’s important to be proactive about your health at every stage. I feel very fortunate that my long-term prognosis is good. I’m focused on enjoying the moments I have with my family and living my best possible life in the present.