From Baptist Health South Florida
4 min. read
Julie Diaz, her husband and their two small children moved to Florida to help care for her aging parents. Instead ― after she received a surprising diagnosis of breast cancer ― the roles were reversed.
“I sat them down, my dad to my left, my mom to my right. I held their hands. I told them, ‘You know how we live in Florida and have a downpour of rain? We are going to go through a torrential downpour, but just know that at the end of the rain, the sun shines and we will get through this,’ ” Ms. Diaz said.
Today, some 16 months after diagnosis, after chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, she is happy to announce they have made it through the storm.
How It Began
The breast cancer journey for Ms. Diaz began just weeks before her 40th birthday. She noticed the nipple on her left breast had become inverted, turning inward. She’d already scheduled her first-ever mammogram, following the recommended screening guidelines for women with no family history or high-risk factors for cancer.
The mammogram was followed by an ultrasound, biopsies, genetic testing and other scans. It was invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.
“I had never even been in a hospital before, except to give birth to my two girls,” said the Boca Raton resident.
“At the beginning, every time I walked through the doors, my blood pressure would go sky high, I would be nervous and full of anxiety,” she recalled. “But everybody on my team was amazing, from the people who check you in at reception to the nurses in the infusion center. They did everything to make me comfortable.”
At Lynn Cancer Institute’s multimodality clinic, Ms. Diaz was able to meet the doctors and team that would care for her ― from the oncologist and radiation oncologist to the geneticist and social worker. Discussing her treatment plan with the team, she quickly realized that the group charged with her care was knowledgeable and confident.
Ms. Diaz found Hilary Shapiro-Wright, D.O., a breast surgical oncologist at Christine E. Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute and Baptist Health Eugene M. & Christine E. Lynn Cancer Institute, particularly reassuring. “She is just a straight-shooter who is clear and concise. As an expert in her field, she truly put me at ease,” Ms. Diaz said. “Everyone said I would be okay.”
Her medical oncologist, Angelina The, M.D., was also a force in her ability to weather the storm. “Dr. The is a great listener. She is calming and gentle, but very thorough,” Ms. Diaz said.
Although cancer was detected in one breast only, Ms. Diaz opted for a double mastectomy.
“Every patient is different. Every cancer is different,” Dr. Shapiro-Wright said. “There are many reasons for a woman to choose a double mastectomy, including the desire to prevent a future cancer. We explore all of the options with our patients.”
On July 6, 2021, before surgery, Ms. Diaz started her first chemotherapy treatment. The loss of her long, blonde hair was traumatizing, and after cutting her hair short, she eventually donned a wig. Her last chemotherapy infusion was on Oct. 23, and then she got to ring the bell signifying the end of one stage of her treatment.
“I remember that on my first day of treatment, someone else was ringing the bell,” she said. “It gave me so much hope. It has a very special significance.”
Wanting to keep things as normal as possible for her children and knowing that a hospital stay would cause her anxiety to soar, she pushed for an outpatient procedure, and the doctors agreed she was a good candidate. Surgery took place on Dec. 6.
When she healed from the surgery, Ms. Diaz continued treatment with 30 rounds of radiation therapy. She is now on a maintenance medication to reduce the risk of recurrence. “I really feel that Lynn Cancer Institute saved my life,” she said.
Help Along the Way
In addition to the loving support of her husband, parents, brother and her work colleagues, Ms. Diaz credits other women with helping her through the most difficult times. At the suggestion of social worker Darci McNally, director of oncology support services at the Institute, Ms. Diaz joined a monthly support group.
“It’s an open, safe space for everyone to discuss where they are on their journey and how they are feeling,” she said. “It has been a wonderful experience.”
Nearing the end of her treatment this past summer, Ms. Diaz felt well enough to travel to the Dominican Republic with her family to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. And, as she forges ahead, she’d like to help others.
“There’s a quote I like: ‘And when you get to where you are going, turn around and help her, too. For there was a time, not long ago, when she was you.’ I send a reminder to all my female friends to check their breasts every month, and I feel that if I can help one woman, that’s great. I am a living testament that early detection saves lives.”
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