MOM PROM — Breast cancer survivor Jerri Colangelo, of Utica, a radiologist technologist at Oneida Healthcare, gets ready for a night out on the town back in March for the Mom Prom fund-raiser to benefit the Oneida Healthcare Family Cancer Assistance Fund. (Photo submitted)
Breast cancer changed Jerri Colangelo
“I’m going back to life.”
Breast cancer changed Jerri Colangelo — her outlook on the future and how she has chosen to make sure her best years are the ones ahead, but she refused to let it take her spirit. And today she can celebrate those “amazing changes.”
Just more than a year ago, Colangelo was play wrestling on the bed with her 5-year-old daughter when she “turned the right way” and her hand brushed an area of her left breast where she felt a lump.
“It’s amazing because I had mammograms, followed up with them and did everything you can do to check for breast cancer,” she said.
Within two weeks of discovering that lump, Colangelo already had mammogram, radiology, biopsy and regular doctor appointments scheduled for examination.
“My biopsy was the day before my 46th birthday on Sept. 19, so I just came up on all of this being my one-year anniversary,” Colangelo said.
A radiologist technologist at Oneida Healthcare, Colangelo got right in with Dr. Ryan Dockery for her biopsy.
“Dr. Dockery took really good care of me,” she recalled. “Working in the field is pretty difficult because you can kind of tell” what the news is going to be. “No one can tell you anything, but you can tell.”
Colangelo got the results of her biopsy four days later, and her primary care physician expedited her care to the Breast Cancer Center at Slocum Dickson.
“Dr. Caesar is a wonderful guy who is easy to talk to and is very knowledgeable,” Colangelo said. “He just got me going in the right direction of treatment because it’s just a whirlwind.
You start out with this lump and two weeks later, you have five different doctors who you will be seeing — an oncologist, plastic surgeon, etc. — to get you where you need to be. When you get back the results from all those tests, it’s really hard to hear.”
Colangelo explained that through the biopsy, her primary care physician had reported that she showed low levels of estrogen — less than 10 percent — which meant her treatment had to begin right away.
“I was Stage I with Grade 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. Due to the low showing of one hormone, they treat that as a triple negative — it’s a very aggressive breast cancer,” she explained. “You go from that then you go see your surgeon and breast surgeon.”
Colangelo underwent a double mastectomy in the middle of November of last year.
“Again, my team of surgeons, Christopher Max and Greg Orlando, were just
phenomenal,” Colangelo said. “My surgery went great and I had a wonderful stay at St. Luke’s. There were no complications or problems. Right after your surgery, you heal for a couple weeks and then I had three months of chemotherapy.”
During the chemotherapy was an emotional time of treatment and healing. Colangelo had to face the physical loss, but at the same time, come to terms with the fact she still came away from surgery with her life.
“The day after Christmas I lost my hair and it was so hard. People say it grows back and it does, but you’re a woman and at 46, you just lost both your breasts and you just lost your hair — you just lost part of your identity,” Colangelo said. “But at the same time I’m going through that, all I could think of was how lucky I am. I was a survivor. I can go forward. It was a year out of my life, but that year is a hiccup. It’s a short stint in your lifetime you can get through.”
She said, “It’s amazing the changes you go through, but at same time, it’s so positive to move forward and know I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Colangelo has really no history of breast cancer or even other cancers that run in her family. She explained that her father’s sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, but went into remission after a lumpectomy and radiation.
“You just don’t know,” she said. “If on Sept. 2 of last year I hadn’t found that lump — I had a mammogram coming up that month, but I was able to find it earlier than that would have and that was very fortunate...I believe there is divine intervention as to why I felt that lump that day.”
Colangelo said, “I had my 5-year-old at home and she was my little nurse. My husband is great — he’s just been wonderful and my family — I have such a wonderful
support group. My girls at work are such a big network too and they let me know, ‘You’re not alone.’ My story is a good one — I knew it would be OK.”
Out of the past 10 months, Colangelo said she’s missed five months of work, but every time she did go back, she got stronger. She just returned to work full-time during the second week of September. Having gone through cancer, Colangelo said it’s also helped her become a better health care professional.
“As a tech, I can’t say anything to a patient and now having been a patient, it’s difficult,” she said. “During my own tests, I had a technician who did the ultrasound who’s usually talkative and bubbly, but as she was giving mine, she was very quiet. It’s not easy on anyone in our field, especially when you know too much sometimes.”
As for undergoing chemo, “My first day was so scary,” Colangelo said. “You walk in, being in this field, and I’m nervous as anything. But the people already going through treatment were amazing. The nurses settle you down and get you comfortable, and you just know everything will be OK.”
“My first day was just getting hooked up into the IV and port,” she recalled. “There was an older gentleman who said, ‘Young miss, do you need something to drink?’ He just wanted to make sure I was being taken care of. People are truly amazing and very helpful, and I wouldn’t have made it through without the support I had.”
Colangelo now encourages others to give toward groups like Libby’s Legacy and St. Agatha Foundation that help support breast cancer patients.
“These programs and foundations out there are so worth donating to — they really help,” Colangelo said. “The financial struggles of patients are real, and these foundations are amazing.”
Now instead of September being a month that Colangelo looks back on her diagnosis, it is now her month to “celebrate.”
“My hair is growing back, I’m feeling better and my surgeries are done,” she said. “When they did my mastectomy they also put in expanders for breast implants a few months later, and a port placement so I still have that for chemo.”
Now Colangelo is ready for the next stage of life.
“I’m going back to life, but it’s not as I knew it,” she said. “I had my 45 first years of life; I just turned 47; and now I have my second half of life to go, and I need to live it right.”
Colangelo said, “If at work I see people struggling, I say, ‘You know what, take it day-by-day. Get through one day and go to the next. You’ve got to look to the future and find the bright side to what’s going on. I find I’m more compassionate and have more empathy, more so than I even had before. It’s the understanding, and we’re all scared. I’m one of the lucky ones — I’m in complete remission and I’ve had survivors guilt sometimes, especially when I went into the chemo room, looking at some folks I knew wouldn’t make it. I’m meant to be here for some reason, and I will do my best to figure that out and do just that — help others.”