“I feel strong these days simply because I am alive,” says Chiara D’Agostino, a woman who has been fighting breast cancer since 2014.
In August of 2014, 42-year-old Chiara had her routine mammogram done and everything was fine. Just six weeks later, Chiara felt a definite lump in her breast and went for another mammogram – but again, nothing was found. Only when she went for an ultrasound did the cancerous mass show, due to her higher level of tissue density, which prevented the mammogram from picking up on the lump.
After doing a single mastectomy on the cancer-infected breast, Chiara chose a prophylactic breast removal for the second breast, hoping to avoid the risk of additional growths. Unfortunately, there were several complications along the way, and during the most recent complication, a CAT scan detected the presence of cancer in her lungs and was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer, which is chronic.
“Just when I thought I was done with cancer,” Chiara says wistfully, “I find out that it’s back for the rest of my life.”
When she started chemo treatment back in 2014, Chiara found the journey to be taxing, both physically and emotionally. She worried about losing her hair, and she felt nauseous, weak and tired, and her bones hurt so much that she went on Percocet to manage the pain. On top of it all, she was forced to confront and contend with her new reality; having to slow down, not do what she wanted to do and have to ask for help from others. The hardest part of the journey, Chiara maintains, was losing her breasts, a part of who she is and was.
But she got through it all. The desire to live and to help others, as well as her faith, is, according to Chiara, what got her this far in her journey – and what propels her to keep going, one day at a time.
“People tell me, ‘Oh, you’re so brave, you’re so strong…’ – but what choice did I have? I just want to live. I hope to help other women who are going through things, to encourage them to just get up and do what needs to be done.”
Along the way, Chiara met many people who were kind and helpful, as well as sensitive to her needs.
There were several oncologists who cared enough to give her their home and cell numbers, as well as one well-known oncologist she never even met who took the time to email her several times.
“Some of these doctors spent time talking to me when I’d have a breakdown and start crying,” Chiara says. “They really gave of their time even though they are busy professionals.”
Other survivors were helpful as well, easing her journey by giving her advice and moral support, as well as accompanying her to the hospital. “People I’d never met would respond to Facebook requests for visitors, send me cards and gifts, take me out, make things for me. It’s like a sisterhood you belong to – you get tips the doctors and nurses don’t have time to give you (like chewing on ginger if you’re nauseous or taking Vitamin B to protect and strengthen your nails).”
Last summer, Chiara started her blog, Beauty Through the Beast, when she was getting interviewed by Wall Street Journal and realized that people want to hear her story. A friend suggested she do some kind of project, and had the idea of starting a blog. Having always been a writer, Chiara enjoys documenting her life, her feelings and her thoughts on her blog, and she hopes to be able to connect with other women through this medium.
On the topic of helping others with cancer, Chiara agrees that it’s not always easy to know what to say.
“I appreciate when people are honest and simply say ’I don’t know what to say,’ or, ‘I’m sorry’ – but everyone’s different, and what can be helpful to one person can be hurtful to others.”
Always leave the door open and let the individual suffering from cancer make the calls – you can say, “please let me know what I can do to help you,” or, “would you like to talk about it?” Never assume; sometimes they do want to talk, sometimes they need to cry – and sometimes they don’t.
Whatever you say, just be sincere.
There are other ways of helping those with cancer. Let them know you’re there for them, let them know that if there’s anything they need now or in the future, they should count you in. But don’t leave it at that; even before they ask for help, you can take it upon yourself to do things. You can buy groceries, bring over a bouquet of flowers, send a gift card or an adult coloring book, cook a meal, or even just send over a simple greeting card letting them know you’re thinking of them.
In addition to helping others, it’s important to help yourself and avoid further occurrences of breast cancer. Women – and men – need to check their breasts; early detection is so important. Educate yourself and do breast exams regularly – and don’t wait until you’re 40 or 50 years old, since it can hit earlier on. In addition, it is important to know your breast density, which you can find out through a regular mammogram. If you have dense breast tissue, you may need ultrasounds to determine the health of your breasts, so this is something you have to know.