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Turning 30 comes with its own set of stressors— or excitement, depending on your perspective— but for actress Krysta Rodriguez, two months into her third decade took a surprising turn when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Rodriguez, who had a featured role in the TV show “Smash” and has been in six Broadway musicals, including the lead role in “First Date,” was in her hometown in Southern California, directing a musical at her old high school when she found out the news in September. Having the creative outlet to work while processing her diagnosis helped, she said, and she chose to keep things quiet for a few months.
“It didn’t seem to be real; it almost felt like that’s the hypochondriac in me, the dramatic actor that would think, ‘oh, of course that would be the thing that would happen,’” Rodriguez told FoxNews.com.
In mid-February, Rodriguez announced her diagnosis, simultaneously launching her blog, ChemoCouture, to candidly share her story as well as fashion and beauty tips learned from her breast cancer experience.
“I was very nervous to do it but it feels nice to actually be able to talk to people about it openly,” she said.
Rodriguez’s diagnosis— stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma in situ and invasive with an estrogen receptor-positive tumor in her left breast— indicates that the cancer began in the milk ducts and has a risk of invading other parts of the body. Invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer, but is relatively uncommon in women Rodriguez’s age, Dr. Halle Moore, a staff physician in the department of solid tumor oncology at Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute told FoxNews.com. About 20 percent of breast cancers occur in women under age 50.
Moore, who has not treated Rodriguez, said that while younger women are less likely to have breast cancer, specialists still see their share of the diagnosis.
“I thought I was going to be this chemo warrior.”
After initially going through a hormone treatment in the hopes that the tumor would shrink, doctors determined Rodriguez needed to start chemotherapy. She relocated to her hometown in Orange County, Calif., after living in New York City for 13 years, and underwent her first treatment in January. She’ll go through six rounds total, one every three weeks, and assess her status with her doctors at that point. According to Moore, while there are a variety of different treatment regimens, this is a standard used for patients who haven’t had surgery yet in order to monitor and evaluate how a patient responds.
In the week after her first chemo treatment, Rodriguez was surprised by how serious the side effects of nausea, bone pain and fatigue were. For a couple days, she was unable to walk after an allergic reaction.
“I really thought that I was going to be this chemo warrior— the only person that had no side effects because that’s what you imagine has to happen… maybe the only one not to lose my hair… I was not,” she said.
Fortunately, after the first week of a treatment she feels more normal and is grateful, knowing that many others going through it have far worse effects.
“The week of sickness is enough to me to keep going, if it’s going to work. I hope for that, but I won’t know for a few weeks,” she said, adding that her mid-treatment evaluation was due soon.
Her diagnosis at such a young age was even more surprising because she has no family history and does not have the BRCA1 and 2 genetic mutations, or tumor protein P53; doctors told her she only had a 1 percent chance of being diagnosed.
“I kept thinking, this is insane, I must be the only person in the world,” she said “Then as I heard about more people, my doctor kept telling me it’s much more common than I thought it was, and now I can’t even believe the amount of people who have the same thing I have, or worse or different kinds of cancer.”
Preparing for the future
Immediately after her diagnosis, Rodriguez had her eggs harvested and began hormone treatment. The roller coaster ride of injecting estrogen in order to prepare her eggs, then starting her initial treatment of hormone therapy, which shut down her ovaries, was rough, but doctors hope the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ method can preserve her fertility for the future.
For patients with estrogen receptor-positive tumors, like Rodriguez, using drugs to shut down the ovaries and prevent estrogen production is a good treatment, Moore said, as the cancer cells may receive signals from estrogen that promote their growth.
In fact, Moore published a study on Wednesday that found that women with hormone sensitive cancer had a reduced chance of ovarian failure with use of the hormone-blocking drug goserelin, which is similar to Lupron, which Rodriguez is on. Moore noted that her study participants had early stage hormone-receptor-negative breast cancer that did not require additional hormone treatment, as patients with early stage hormone-receptor-positive cancer do.
For breast cancer patients who must undergo hormone treatments after they’re cancer-free— which could last 5-10 years— fertility becomes tricky, with factors such as age, risk, and lifestyle coming into play. For example, would a woman interrupt her treatment in order to become pregnant, at the chance of cancer recurring?
“These are very complicated and individual decisions that a patient has to take into account,” Moore said, adding that typically they suggest patients wait two years after chemotherapy is over before trying to conceive, but that there isn’t a “magic” number of years at which recurrence is unlikely.
Estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer is tricky because doctors see late recurrences, even ten years after remission, while more aggressive estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer has a higher risk of early recurrence, she said.
“Breast cancer in young women is an extremely complicated issue,” Moore said, affecting fertility, genetic risk, career development, and personal relations. “Really, there are many, many issues young women face disproportionately with a breast cancer diagnosis.”
“My concern is that I have a lot of living left to do and there’s a lot more years to worry about getting cancer again,” Rodriguez said. She’ll stay on medication for at least five years after she’s cancer-free and will be in menopause until she’s 35.
Taking care of her body— and finding a great wig
As a triple-threat actress, Rodriguez has always had a strong awareness of her body and health, especially to perform eight times a week on Broadway, but occasionally slipped up. Now her diagnosis has shown her there are no more excuses to not be as healthy as she can. She’s found that a diet that’s close to Paleo— nixing refined carbs and processed foods in favor of whole foods and low sugar — has worked for her and she tries to eat as clean and healthily as possible. Now, rather than grabbing food on the go, she plans her meals ahead and prepares freezer foods so she always has a healthy option.
“I’m going to be very clear— that this is my path, my own specific choice, and I’m not advocating a specific route for anybody,” she said. “Everyone’s path is certainly unique and this is what felt good for me.”
With her fashion-focused blog, Rodriguez is aiming to help women feel good— because how a breast cancer patient presents herself and makes herself feel is more important than ever.
“The major thing I’ve heard from people is how your dignity sorts of gets stripped away… your body becomes a study of science instead of what you know it to be It becomes a very public entity to everyone,” she said.
Thanks to years of applying false eyelashes for the stage, Rodriguez had the skills to use them when her eyelashes started falling out, and will share tips in ChemoCouture, along with the homemade natural, aluminum-free deodorant she’s started using, and other natural beauty treatments tailored for women undergoing chemo.
Rodriguez’s hair started falling out two weeks after her first chemo session, and four days after that, she and her boyfriend, Peter, both shaved their heads. While her custom wig got lost by FedEx, she found store-bought substitutes that her hairdresser customized, which she said makes a big difference.
“It’s like a really great pair of pants altered to you,” she said. “It’s a more personal and unique experience for every person that’s coming through, so we don’t all just feel the same.”
“I actually enjoy looking at myself in my mirror now, more than I did before.”
Rodriguez is shooting a guest role on “Inside Amy Schumer” and has performed in concerts in New York, but for now, she’s focusing on her blog and stepping back from work, which she called “equal parts scary and thrilling.”
“I’m definitely working hard as a very driven person to give myself permission to have cancer and to fight cancer,” she said. “It’s a really hard thing.”
Speaking up about her diagnosis and talking with others has been an integral part in her processing of all the changes. Young women are an underrepresented part of the cancer conversation and that needs to change, Rodriguez said.
“There are so many more strides we need to take,” she said. “I’m one person who doesn’t know anything about medicine and the science behind it, but we have an army of people who need it. I’m hoping to raise some awareness that we need a better system, somehow.”