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Don’t Say “Cancer” & Other Thoughts From a Three-Time Survivor

Posted on December 13, 2016, 1:00 PM

Maria Boschetti might have a real-life guardian angel. First diagnosed at age 25, this three-time breast cancer survivor beat the odds again and again—and she never gave up.

Her story starts in July 2005, when Maria was with her godmother (and namesake) Maria Boschetti—who they called “Marika”—as she took her last breath after a long battle with lung cancer. That night, Maria couldn’t sleep. She was upset about her godmother’s passing, but she also felt like something else was wrong. Something just didn’t feel right, so following her instinct, the next morning she marched herself into a clinic. Nurses assured her it was just a panic attack, likely triggered by the stressful events of the night. Maria insisted they check it out, just to be sure.

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A full-body checkup found something unusual—dense tissue in her breast, along with fluid leaking out of her breast. Further testing and a mammogram revealed a 7-centimeter dense calcification in her right breast, which was later identified as DCIS, or ductal carcinoma in situ, Stage 0. She was pre-tumor, which means she caught it insanely early. Maria likes to think her godmother Marika was by her side, acting as a guardian angel that day, because she learned that in just six months’ time from when she caught it, the cancer could have spread all over her body.

By August 2005—right before her 25th birthday—the tumor had grown into something more significant. The doctors recommended a unilateral mastectomy in her right breast. Maria made a bold and brave decision to remove the tissue in both through a bilateral mastectomy. After a mastectomy, the cancer had only a 1% chance of returning. Maria had the surgery, receiving implants in both breasts. A year later during a checkup, her doctor noticed that one of her implants had dropped a bit, and recommended they correct it—along with an MRI and an annual follow-up, while they were at it. They found a 1.5-centimeter tumor had returned. Now that her cancer was officially invasive, the recommended course of action was to remove her lymph nodes and take the tumor out. This time around, she would need anti-hormonal treatment and chemotherapy. To help her get through the harsh treatment, Maria focused on staying positive and leaning on her strong support system and beat it a second time.

Maria moved forward, living her life to the fullest, healthy as ever. She thought the cancer would never come back. But two years ago in 2014, after eight years in remission, the cancer returned—in the same spot. This third diagnosis ignited a fire inside Maria. She got tougher and thought, “This can never come back, I won’t allow it.” Her commitment to staying focused, healthy and positive helped see her through her darkest moments. Her attitude created a lifestyle that keeps out negative emotions or any activities that create stress—and only lets in joy and love. In the near decade that Maria had been cancer-free, treatment evolved by leaps and bounds. For this round of treatment, Maria was able to use cold caps to keep her hair loss to only about 30%. Some people never even knew she was sick. She also made one more important change: she switched hospitals. After ten years at City of Hope (which she loved), Maria went to UCLA because of one incredible doctor who was revolutionizing how cancer was treated. Dr. Dennis Slamon is a Stand Up To Cancer researcher who helped develop the breast cancer drug Herceptin, which targets a specific genetic alteration found in roughly 25% of breast cancer patients—like Maria. Dr. Slamon was actively interested in “natural things his patients could do outside of taking a pill.” Dr. Slamon and his team’s advice to Maria? “Research, research, research.” And she did. She became her best advocate, encouraging her team to taper off her steroid use and putting herself on B-vitamin and glutamine supplements to combat the side effects of the chemo drug Taxol for nerve damage in her hands and feet.

With Dr. Slamon and the incredible team at UCLA, Maria successfully beat cancer a third time— which she attributes to being stronger, wiser and more pro-active about her health. From her first diagnosis, cancer completely changed the way Maria lived her life, in more ways than one. When she was first diagnosed, she didn’t exercise regularly. After her third diagnosis, exercise became a way to cope with her emotional stress. She found that working out every day—even on chemo days—helped focus her mind, despite feeling mentally and physically drained sometimes. Maria shares, “That is by far the best advice I can give to anyone going through this: just a walk will help.” In addition to working out, everything she ate was only treated as fuel for her body. One food item she banished from her diet was sugar. She wanted to give herself the maximum potential to heal and repair. Another way she changed was practicing meditation, which she started practicing only once she’d been diagnosed. She used it to envision her body healing and focus on her life after chemo. She says from experience, “It’s amazing how powerful the mind is.” She became hyper-focused on staying as positive as possible, day to day, hour to hour. Maria says, “I wouldn’t even say ‘cancer-free’, I just eliminated the word ‘cancer’ from my vocab altogether.”

Surviving cancer has shown Maria sides of herself that she didn’t know were there. She’s tough. She’s driven. She’s survived more than 20 surgeries in 10 years. But Maria was surprised to discover the amount of shame that comes with cancer. Some people just look at you differently, and there’s not always an immediate outlet available to work through those feelings. It’s important to always remember that, just like Maria, you’re crazy tough. You are stronger than you think and that’s the truth no matter what cancer is trying to sell you.

On the heels of our live telecast event in September, where we asked everyone in the United States to share their #Reasons2StandUp, we asked this three-time survivor about hers. Fittingly, she had three: 1) For all the young women fighting this battle that people don’t know about; 2) For the groundbreaking research, medicine and teams of doctors that saved my life; and 3) For the family and friends that were, are—and always will be—my support system.

 


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