'My mom and I battled breast cancer at the same time': One woman's story

Amanda Gatto and her mother have both battled breast cancer, a disease that claims the lives of more than 40,000 women in the U.S. every year. Last month, Gatto honored her mom by walking in Santa Barbara's AVON 39, a two-day, 39-mile walk that helped raise money to fight breast cancer. Here's Amanda's story, as told to Jillian Kramer.

In 2010, I heard the news we all know is possible but push to the back of our minds: Someone I loved dearly had breast cancer. In my case, it was my mother, then just 46 years old. She found a lump in her breast and went to have it checked without telling anyone, so there was no prepping, no planning what we would do if the tests came back positive. I found out at the same time as my now-husband, Vince, and my brother. "I have breast cancer, but don't worry," Mom said after sitting us down. She was so calm, so "I've got this." I, on the other hand, was freaking out inside. Cancer is a really scary word.

After meeting with her doctors, my mom opted to do a lumpectomy, where they cut out the cancer, plus several weeks of radiation. Even through extreme fatigue and sunburn-like burns across her chest, she acted like the treatment was no big deal. She would even drive herself to her radiation appointments. She went every day, Monday through Friday. After six months, she was done with the radiation, and my family breathed a collective sigh of relief. Whew. That's over.

Or so we thought.

Two years later, I was at my primary care doctor's office for my annual physical, and she found a lump in my breast. "Does that feel funny to you?" she said. I told her I didn't know, because I had never learned to check my breasts, which sounds crazy now. I was only 24 years old, and I naively thought that I was too young to have to worry about it. My doctor knew my family had a history of breast cancer, so she sent me straight for a biopsy.

When the results came back, the nurse called me to make an appointment with a surgeon without ever telling me why. The feeling? Total panic. After what seemed like forever but was probably just a few minutes, my doctor called me and said, "You have breast cancer." I tried to stay focused as she was talking, but my mind was spinning. This doesn't happen to women my age, I thought. This was supposed to be one of the most exciting times of my life: Vince had proposed, and with my mom feeling better, we had happily jumped into wedding planning. Cancer? I thought. Now? No.

I tried to focus on the positive, like my mother had. I was going to marry the love of my life—this cancer would be a minor speed bump. Mom was just as strong getting me through my diagnosis as she had been with her own. She insisted that we keep planning the wedding, which kept me steady. In between trips to the florist and other vendors, we'd go to my oncologist appointments. There was no time to be sad, because I was getting married, and that's what we focused on.

When I met with the surgeon, she told me that because of my age and my family's history, she recommended a double mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. There was the option to do a lumpectomy followed by radiation, just as my mom had done, or a single mastectomy, where they would just take out the breast where the lump had been found, but that wouldn’t do as much to eliminate my risk of beating the big C. The decision about whether or not to have my breasts removed was overwhelming. I cried—a lot. But my mom was with me, and she calmed me down. She hugged me, and told me it would be OK and we'd get through it together. I thought of how she'd completed her own treatment so quickly and how she had survived. This is what we do, I thought. We beat this.
Before I made my decision, I went to see a genetic counselor, who told me I had the BRCA2 gene, a chromosome mutation that causes an increased risk of cancer. That news was the deciding factor in my choice to do a double mastectomy. The surgeon had already told me that because I was only in my twenties, the chances of the cancer coming back were high. And after reviewing the genetic test results, it was very clear to me what I needed to do

I underwent the double mastectomy six weeks before my wedding. Going into the surgery, I was a mess. I was so sad and so scared. It was just weeks before my wedding, and I was getting my breasts chopped off—not exactly how I'd pictured the lead up to one of the biggest days of my life. There was one moment of relief when doctors told me that I could wait to do chemotherapy until after the wedding. I know—I had much more serious things to worry about than hair. But having the reassurance that I would look like, well, me, walking down the aisle was a small victory. Other people tried to put me at ease, too: I had a dress fitting a week after my surgery, and the women at the store were so good to me, and said they would put padding in my dress so that nobody would be able to tell that I'd had my breasts removed.

The wedding was as special and joyful as I had always imagined it would be. There was this feeling: We, my mom and I, had conquered this thing. We were survivors.

Then, while Vince and I were on our honeymoon, my mom went to the doctor because she'd been having back pain, and found out that her cancer had returned. This time, it had spread to her bones. I was equal parts shocked and heartbroken, and I also felt guilty. Here I had been, planning my wedding and taking care of myself—I hadn't even known my mother had been in pain. She had hidden it from me so that I wouldn’t worry, because that’s who she is—the strongest woman I know.

For the next seven months, I would go to the oncologist appointments with my mom, and she would go to my chemotherapy sessions with me. Her prognosis wasn't good—her cancer was stage IV, the most serious kind. The cancer was in her bones, her lungs, her liver, her kidneys—and there wasn't much doctors could do.

I finished my chemotherapy in March of 2013. My mom was moved to hospice care that May.

That June, while she was still in hospice, my mom and I had this one really good day. She was up, she wasn't in a lot of pain, and we were talking about having a baking day that weekend. We talked about what we wanted to make—banana nut bread and peanut butter and chocolate fudge—and I promised to go to the store to get all the ingredients. She was in an upbeat mood (of course), and she wanted to do something she loved with me.

She died the next day.

After my mom passed away, I told myself that all of that strength she had inside of her was passed on to me, and not just to keep the cancer away, but to propel me forward in all parts of my life. I also knew that in my mom’s honor, I had to do something so that other women never have to hear the horrible words: "You have breast cancer."

How would I help, though? I wasn’t sure at first, but then my husband's cousin walked in the 2013 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer for me and my mom. When she told me about it, I thought, I want to do this. I joined for the first time in 2014.

Just before the walk, I felt a small lump on the top of my breast implant. A surgeon cut it out and sent it in for testing, and the results affirmed my worst fear: The cancer had returned. There was an upside, though— was lucky—it hadn’t spread. Now, I see an oncologist every three months to do blood work and a physical exam. It’s nerve-wracking, but I know it’s what I have to do.

Something else I have to do? Keep fighting this terrible disease. This year was my second time completing the AVON39, and I'm already looking forward to walking in 2016. Part of this is because raising money to help fight cancer is important to me. But another reason why I plan to keep doing walking—and fighting—is because every step reminds me of my mother. Every step, I know she's with me.

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