Shannon Cortese-Artigiani marks five years of being cancer-free
Thinking back, “I realize how far I’ve come,” says Shannon Cortese-Artigiani of Rome, who in January this year marked five years of being cancer-free.
“It was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had, and there were times when I doubted I had the strength to get through it,” says Cortese-Artigiani, 41, who was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 2012.
“I found it helpful to just focus on getting through one day at a time,” she observed, and “I had my family and friends to lean on — my parents, my siblings, my husband and my kids. They all made sure that I was OK every step of the way.”
But Cortese-Artigiani also “learned something so valuable about myself through this ordeal.” She “learned that I am so much stronger than I ever realized I was. That even when I felt sick, and it felt too hard or too scary, I found myself digging deep and finding the strength to do it. To see myself through. I’m proud to be a survivor.”
Cortese-Artigiani, of Oxford Road, has been married for 15 years to Rich Artigiani. They have three children: Richie, age 14; Noah, 12; and Caelyn, 8.
During a breast self-examination six years ago, Cortese-Artigiani recalled, “I think I knew when I felt the lump that it was not normal, but tried to remain calm.”
It was soon discovered that she had two tumors, side by side, which both turned out to be Estrogen receptor and Progesterone receptor positive breast cancer tumors.
“My immediate reaction is hard to describe. It felt like pure terror,” Cortese-Artigiani commented. At that time “I was a 35-year-old mother of three kids, aged 8, 6, and 2. They needed me, my husband needed me, and I was suddenly petrified that they were going to lose me. I’d never felt that degree of panic before, and I hope to never feel it again.”
After meeting with her surgeon and oncologist, “it was decided that the best course of treatment for me would begin with a mastectomy of just the affected breast, to start,” said Cortese-Artigiani.
She began a four-cycle chemotherapy treatment, spaced three weeks apart, slightly over a month after her first surgery.
The chemotherapy was deemed necessary based on the size of the tumors, and because there was more than one, she explained.
“I was fortunate that it had not spread to my lymph nodes yet,” Cortese-Artigiani remarked.
Cortese-Artigiani underwent a second surgery three months after her final chemotherapy treatment; she had opted to have the doctors remove her healthy breast, plus the surgery completed the first stage of reconstruction of her breasts. She had a third surgery five months later to to complete the reconstruction process.
“From diagnosis to final reconstructive surgery, a year of my life had passed,” said Cortese-Artigiani.
While she was fortunate to “not experience any really terrible complications or difficulties” during her treatment, Cortese-Artigiani said, “the chemotherapy was definitely hard on me.” She had some allergic reactions to it, along with some negative side-effects typically associated, plus “some difficulties with my blood counts recovering.” She lost her hair, but it began to grow back about two months after she finished chemotherapy. She also had the “typical gastrointestinal upset that so many chemo patients get, as well as extreme fatigue and flu-like symptoms.”
But the problems were “quickly addressed by my wonderful oncologist, Dr. (Atul) Butala, and I was able to battle through it,” said Cortese-Artigiani.
She has warm memories of the late Dr. Paul Temple, who was her obstetrician-gynecologist and who passed away in 2015: “I cannot say enough about that man. He was kind and gentle. He took everything seriously and was so cautious and caring. A truly gifted physician. He delivered all three of my children, but he also helped save my life because he believed in checking everything.”
Cortese-Artigiani continues to frequently visit her oncologist, Dr. Butala, for physical examinations and blood work, “to keep a close eye on things.” She sees him about every four months, commenting “he is fantastic. We are fortunate to have some really amazing doctors in our area.”
She has taken Tamoxifen, an estrogen receptor modulating medication, for the past five years, and will continue to take it for five more. She explained “because my tumors were fed by hormones, this medication is meant to prevent a recurrence of the cancer.”
When asked what advice she would give others in trying to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis, Cortese-Artigiani said to “let yourself feel scared and emotional. And then pick yourself up, focus your energy, and start believing that you will be okay. Listen to your doctors and don’t be afraid to talk to them about anything and everything. Ask them questions. Throughout my experience, I came to find that they really want to do everything they can to make this as easy and pain-free as possible.”
She also said to “lean on your loved ones. They are often just as scared as you are, and letting them help you is just as important to them as it is for you.”
Most importantly, said Cortese-Artigiani, “have faith in yourself and don’t give up, even when it feels like too much. You have to believe that you will get your life back. You will find your new normal and it will be worth everything you had to go through to get there.”
Every woman needs to take her health seriously, Cortese-Artigiani noted.
“We have to listen to our bodies. We have to carefully observe them. We have to be vigilant about keeping our appointments with our physicians. And I cannot stress this enough...we have to be our own life savers,” she said. “We must do self breast exams and do them frequently....”
Cortese-Artigiani said she owes “so much to my doctors for everything they did for me, and I will be forever grateful to them.” But she also feels that “I, in fact, saved my own life. I felt something different and I acted quickly.”