Advanced Breast Cancer Survivor

Second opinion led to a second chance

Sharon Cinelli reluctantly retired from teaching kindergarten so she could focus on fighting Stage IV breast cancer. Thankfully, she had just married her husband, Al, who gave her the moral support she needed to survive the darkest days of dealing with the disease. The Cinellis put their trust in the right doctor and his treatment plan, which included a cutting-edge clinical trial drug paired with chemotherapy, a practice commonly used today. Two and a half decades later the world-traveling couple has accumulated priceless family memories that have easily made these past years the best of her life.

 

It took me a while to accept the fact that I had breast cancer, even though it had silently spread to my liver.

My husband, on the other hand, was extremely diligent that I get the best care possible due to losing his first wife—and mother of his four grown children—to leukemia several years before. He insisted I attend cancer support groups and read the books I received from the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation, where I also volunteered.

He went with me to every appointment, and having someone there to pay attention and take notes while I was in such a daze helped immensely.

My initial doctor wanted to operate immediately after my diagnosis, but my husband and a friend convinced me to get a second opinion, which I highly recommend before making any life or death decisions. The second doctor said my tumor was inoperable, but he was confident that the clinical trial drug dexrazoxane (Zinecard) would keep my heart healthy enough to endure aggressive, cancer-killing chemotherapy.

This cardioprotective drug is designed to shield your heart from damage often caused by chemotherapy drugs, especially doxorubicin (Adriamycin), which was part of my CAF chemo cocktail: cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), doxorubicin and fluorouracil (5-FU). All of the medication was administered through an IV initially, but doctors eventually installed a port to make the process easier on me.

If I had met with my doctor a couple of days earlier or later, the trial wouldn’t have been available to me, and I would have missed out on this great opportunity. My doctor explained that I came in at the right time, so I felt really good about getting involved in this study during its inception.

Each month heart and blood tests determined if I was healthy enough for treatment, or if I needed to take a break, which was very disappointing because I wanted to keep fighting.

That first spring was definitely the hardest for me emotionally. Al could tell, so he whisked me away to South Padre Island—my healing place—where I could focus on getting better. I walked the beach, prayed to God and visualized myself being cancer-free instead of being tortured by school buses filled with excited kids heading back to school.

After nearly two years and 20 chemotherapy treatments, a multiple gated acquisition (MUGA) scan showed that my heart was only functioning at 50 percent. At that point we stopped the chemo which had severely diminished the cancer cells, and the initial tumor was surgically removed. I decided against reconstructive surgery, so for the next five years I took tamoxifen, followed by anastrozole (Arimidex), which I will probably take for the rest of my life.

From the beginning, I wanted nothing to do with learning the survival statistics surrounding my disease. I figured what good would that do? I decided to put my energy into finding a doctor and treatment plan I could trust, and then leaving the rest up to God.

I’ll never forget the first Christmas after I was diagnosed. I wore my wig and soaked in every sight, smell and sound, surrounded by my husband and kids—fearing this would be one of our last family celebrations. But over the past 25 years I have proudly attended the weddings of all four children, and we now have five grandchildren to spoil. When we’re not traveling or with family, I keep busy with aerobics and different book clubs and bridge groups.

Now I go back to the doctor for an exam, mammogram and blood work every December just to make sure I’m still in the clear. It’s my little Christmas present to myself, and then I get right back to enjoying life and spending time with my family, who have already lost enough to this disease. I’m grateful that I’m here so that I can tell you to keep fighting! Treatment is a battle but surviving is well worth the fight.

 

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