As part of Breast Cancer Awareness month, Fabletics is proud to partner with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) for their Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative. Throughout the month, we hosted special store events with proceeds benefitting this worthy cause, in addition to creating a limited-edition pink outfit that also benefitted FTBC. To highlight just how important this cause is to us, we spoke with Denise Pietri—a breast cancer survivor—to learn her story and hear the immense impact that FTBC made on her life.
Can you tell us your story?
Last year on November 5, 2015 I felt a lump on my right breast. I wasn’t doing my monthly self-breast checkup—to be honest, I never did—I just scratched myself and there was a lump I’d never felt before. The next day, I called my doctor and made an appointment, and on Monday I was sitting in my doctor’s office. She checked me and told me I needed an ultrasound but not to worry because it could be several things. In my gut I knew it was something to worry about. The following week, I was having my ultrasound done and the tech told me that she was going to get the doctor. The doctor came in, looked at the screen and said I needed a biopsy ASAP. The following week, I was having the biopsy done (2 days before Thanksgiving). I didn’t waste any time because deep down I knew it was breast cancer.
On November 30, I received a phone call from the nurse while I was at work confirming I had breast cancer. My world came tumbling down; all I could think was that I was only 36 and what was going to happen to my son (I am a single parent). I started looking for doctors, found 2 and booked appointments with both. I wanted to make sure I was getting the same answers from both. More tests were required: ultrasounds, mammograms, MRI, another biopsy and genetic testing. Thankfully, my genetic test came back negative, but the results from the other test diagnosed me with stage 2A hormone receptor positive subtype of breast cancer.
On January 20, I had a mastectomy of my right breast and a tissue expander was inserted. I was not ready to lose both breasts. My surgery was a success and thankfully it did not spread to my lymph nodes. Once I recovered from the surgery, the process to expand the area started. I went to see the plastic surgeon every week for 5 weeks to expand the area to make space for the silicone implant. The pain I endured every time I went for an expansion was excruciating, nothing helped nor soothed the pain, but every time I went, I was one step closer to finishing with this battle. After 5 weeks, we reached the size that we needed for the implant. The implant would be placed once I finished chemotherapy, which was my next step. I prepared myself as best as I could to be strong and overcome chemo; I gained weight, tattooed my eyebrows, got fake eyelashes and a pixie cut. I was determined to be strong and look my best during chemo so my son would not worry.
I started chemo on March 23, 2015 for 8 rounds, 2 weeks apart. I had an A/C and Taxol cocktail; I started strong but it definitely kicked my butt. After my first round, my hair started falling out. As much as I prepped for that by cutting my hair short and knowing it would fall out, it hurt so much to see it falling out uncontrollably. On April 6—my sons 11th birthday—I had my hair stylist come over and shave it off. It was better that way instead of seeing it fall out. I kept working throughout my whole battle until chemo came along, then I stopped working in May for 2 months. I was home sick and very close to needing a blood transfusion. Thankfully, that was near the end of my chemo and I started to feel better.
I finished chemo on June 23, and I am now on medication for the next 5 years and a clinical trial for 1 year. I look back on everything I’ve gone through and cannot believe that it happened to me and I made it out. The support of my family and friends helped me so much. I didn’t want to speak to anyone during chemo because I was so sick but receiving their text messages of love and support made it easier. I never lost faith throughout my battle and here I am standing tall and strong again!
How did the funding from the FTBC change your life?
When I was diagnosed, I felt my whole world come tumbling down; all I could think about was my son and what would happen to him. I ended up falling into depression until FTBC came along and changed my life. Through FTBC, I was able to meet and speak to other women who had gone through breast cancer and are now survivors and thriving. Speaking to them and getting to know their stories, which were all so different, gave me hope and inspiration.
How did you get in touch with the SHARE organization?
I was sitting in my breast surgeon’s office crying. My parents were with me—they attended all my doctor appointments to give me support. Both the physician’s assistant and breast surgeon were going over my diagnosis and my treatment plan to attack this disease. They suggested that I speak with the Latina Co-Director from SHARE, Maria. They told me that when she was diagnosed, she was around my age and is now a survivor. A few days later, I received a call from her and we spent over an hour discussing my diagnosis, treatment plan and her story.
Is there anyone at the organization that made a significant impact on you?
Yes, there was a person from the organization that made an impact on me during my battle: Maria. As I mentioned previously, during our first contact, we were on the phone for over an hour. At my next doctor’s appointment with my parents, we had the privilege to meet Maria. She greeted me with the warmest hug ever. I felt like I’d known her for a long time and she did the same with my parents. My parents were a wreck when we first found out. Not only did Maria inspire me and give me hope, she gave my parents hope. She would sit in during my appointments with the surgeon and translate to my parents so they could understand and be aware of what was going on. As I would sit there crying with my parents, she would hold my mother’s hand telling her that it would be OK, that it was going to be a long, hard road but that it would be OK. Maria would call and text me to see how I was doing, she gave me tips on how to prepare for chemo and what to expect. She gave me a chemo care kit, she had me try on wigs at her office, she was always available to listen and answer any questions I would have. When I go to my follow-up appointments now I run into her and she always greets me with a hug and makes time to chat with me and see how I am doing. I am blessed to have met Maria; she gave me the hope and strength to fight this disease.
How has battling cancer changed your life? Do you have a different outlook on life now?
Battling breast cancer has changed my life immensely; it has taught me to be grateful. While I was going through chemo, I closed myself off and did not return phone calls or text messages from friends and family. Once I started to feel better after chemo, I started to appreciate the simple things in life. I appreciate the calls and text messages, going for a walk, sunny and cloudy days, even Monday mornings! Everything has so much more meaning to me now. I smile more because I have the best reason to do so: I am alive. I have a second chance at this thing called life!
Do you have a new health and wellness routine?
Before cancer, I was active in working out 4 to 5 days a week, which is a little hard for me to do right now because my joints are in so much pain due to side-effects of chemo and from the medication I am on. I do, however, get some walking exercise every day. I am trying to build myself up and start incorporating more exercise into my routine. I am more conscious of the food I eat and eat organic as often as I can. Every morning I make my own green juices with organic fruits and vegetables, and I drink lots of water. I’ve always been a social drinker, usually 2 or 3 drinks but now that has been cut to 1 glass of wine. I think I deserve one glass of wine once in a while!
Who or what was your inspiration during this challenging time in your life?
My inspiration throughout my battle was my aunt Emily who passed away in 2005 from breast cancer. I used to go to Puerto Rico every summer growing up and I spent a lot of time with her on those summer vacations. Throughout her battle with breast cancer, I saw her twice: once while she was going through chemo and once in the hospital the day before she passed. Once we received the call that she was not doing well, we took off to be by her side before she passed. She fought so hard but unfortunately she lost her battle. When I was diagnosed, I turned to my faith and to her. She was my inspiration. She fought with such strength, style and grace, and I was going to follow in her footsteps, not just for me but for us. I know she was with me every step of the way. She was and will always be my inspiration.
What helped keep you positive?
Staying positive was very difficult for me at first, but having an amazing support system made all the difference in the world. My family and friends were by my side every single step of the way and made it very clear to me that nobody fights alone. I had every reason to fight and keep positive; I have my 11-year-old son who needs me. Every time I got home from a surgery, tissue expanding appointment or chemo session, my son was there waiting with open arms ready to help in any way. He would prepare my bed with pillows, my favorite blanket, his favorite teddy bear, water, snacks and meds. He was my reason to keep pushing and be positive when all I wanted was to give up. He made me realize how strong I can be. My son told me every day that he loves me and not to worry that I have him and that he will always be by my side. Finding love at the darkest time in my life also kept me positive. To find someone during your hardest time is very difficult; sometimes people walk away and he walked in. He made me feel beautiful on my worst days. I have been blessed with such amazing family and friends full of love and positivity.
How do you give back now?
How can I not give back, with all the support I received? I’m going to pay it forward. Not everyone has all the support that is needed when battling cancer and I don’t know how someone could get through this alone. I spoke to Maria, the Latina Co-Director from SHARE and made her aware that I am here to help. I am available to help other women get through this battle just like she helped me. A text message, a phone call or meeting for coffee can go a long way. I lost my hair right before my second round of chemo, so I invested in some really good wigs and some were given to me. I no longer need the wigs as my hair has grown back in. I will be donating the wigs to the SHARE Organization as wigs can be quite pricey and not everyone can afford them. I know they will bring a smile to another breast cancer patient just like they did to me. I will share my story as often as I can. Cancer does not discriminate because you are young and we must all do our monthly self-breast exams.
What advice would you give to someone battling breast cancer?
This is a pretty tough question because everyone’s breast cancer story is different. What helped me was assembling my support system—people who are positive and uplifting—this will help you fight your battle. Go for a second opinion and make sure you are getting the same results. Choose which doctor you feel most comfortable with as you want a team that is compassionate and understanding. You are not alone; there are many organizations that can help you. I have a great support system with my family and friends, but none of them really knew what I was feeling or going through and that’s when I was introduced to the SHARE Organization. If you need help, reach out for it and ask questions. My biggest help was my faith in god, so if you believe in a higher power ask for their help throughout your journey. Everyone’s story is different but I say stay strong and fight like a girl!
For more information about Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, and to donate, please visit cfda.com.
Share your words of encouragement for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing treatment. Your submission will be printed and donated to SHARE, a survivor-led organization that provides support, information, and resources to women affected by breast and ovarian cancers.