• Susette Andaya-Gomez

My Cancer Story: How a Self-Exam Saved My Life

I’m sharing my story in hopes that at least one woman will check her breasts today. A self-breast exam saved my life. It could save yours. Assess your risk here.

Breast Cancer Awareness, pink ribbon top
📸: Lin Grosman, Lins Photo Studio

My journey began on Feb. 13th, 2020, after finding a lump on my breast while doing a self-exam in the shower. The following day, I showed up at my primary doctor’s office and requested a script for a mammogram. My doctor was hesitant. He said that due to my age, it was probably nothing. But I knew something was not right, so I pushed getting the test, and he finally agreed.

I found myself an appointment for a mammogram and an ultrasound that very same day and drove to the testing facility straight from my doctor’s office. We had plans to visit Disney that weekend, and I could not bear the thought of going on vacation without having some answers.

My life changed on Feb. 14th, 2020, when the doctor read the results of the ultrasound. He came into the room and said that I had breast cancer. Just like that. The words that would forever shape my life seemed to fly out of his mouth so easily. I was in shock, in tears and frozen. I asked how he could be so sure without a biopsy? How could he so easily give me that news? He said that I would need a biopsy to confirm, but that he was pretty sure of his diagnosis. In that moment, I didn’t know if I should be mad at him for “assuming” or glad that I had an answer sooner than most.

I’m not sure how, but I found a way to compose myself, got in my car and drove home. I can’t recall if I called my husband on the way home or if I told him the news when I got home. Part of that day is still a blur. So many thoughts were running through my head. Could that doctor be wrong? Would this be my last vacation with my husband and then 2-year-old son? How did this happen? Did I do something to cause this? We considered canceling our trip, but then decided to go. We figured if anything, it would serve as a distraction from what was really going on. It was the most surreal trip to Disney. Part of me was happy to be there experiencing it all with my son, but every single sweet moment was bittersweet…not knowing if that was my last time having any of those experiences. UGH! My heart aches even now just thinking about those moments.

A week later I received a call from my primary doctor confirming that I had breast cancer. He didn’t seem to have the words to tell me or explain any of the details. All he could say was “I’m sorry to have to tell you this Susette, but you have cancer.” In that moment, my analytical side took charge, and I diligently noted the diagnosis he gave me over the phone. He said I had ductal carcinoma in-situ (DCIS), and the “in-situ” part was not so bad. Once we hung up, I of course consulted the oracle “Google” and focused on the “not so bad” “in-situ” part, which is a non-invasive or pre-invasive breast cancer.

A few days later, I met an Oncology surgeon who explained what I had was much worse than what I had initially been told. My actual diagnosis was Stage 1, triple negative (TNBC), invasive ductal carcinoma. This was an entirely different picture. Per Cancer.org “Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is considered an aggressive cancer because it grows quickly, is more likely to have spread at the time it's found and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer. The outlook is generally not as good as it is for other types of breast cancer.”

Following the bad news, I decided to handle this much like I handle any other problem - head on and with a positive attitude. I was determined to beat this with faith, courage, and grace.

Chemo therapy treatment at Miami Cancer Institute
Chemotherapy treatment, Miami Cancer Institute

Since then, I’ve had 3 months of dose-dense chemo, several surgeries including a port placement, lumpectomy, port removal, sentinel node biopsy/surgery and underwent 20 daily rounds of radiation. I’ll spare you the list of side effects, but let’s just say they turned me into an entirely different human, physically and mentally - but that’s a story for another day. I completed treatments in September of 2020, but the road to recovery and post treatment management is a long one, and one that no one seems to prepare you for.

I consider myself lucky to have found this at such an early stage. The best advice I can give women is to check their breasts at least once a month. I am living proof that early detection can save your life. It saved mine.

I have learned many lessons since my diagnosis, but the perspective I have gained has been invaluable. Having a positive attitude has been life changing for me. I’ve always been this way, but I know that it was an integral part of my recovery -- not only physically but mentally. The term “Mental Health Matters” has never resonated more in my head than it did during and after treatment. Our bodies can do amazing things and are so much stronger than we can even begin to imagine, but at the end of the day, our thoughts are much stronger than our physical bodies. I am convinced that our attitude, be it positive or negative, can change the world around us.

I’ve also learned to appreciate the little moments in life and to not give so much importance to things that used to bother me before. Among many other lessons, I’ve been fortunate to truly understand that we must live for today and in the moment because every day is a gift.

While I’m still experiencing some side effects from it all, I’m grateful to be alive and for having kicked cancer’s butt!

Inadvertently, I joined a club that no one wants to join, but soon found out that it’s filled with incredibly strong, wise, and capable women (and even some men). I’m now a breast cancer survivor. Not something anyone looks to add to their life resume, but there it is.

My road to recovery will continue for a while, and I’ll be having health checkups every 6 months for the next 5 years to ensure nothing has come back. I feel blessed to have gained a new perspective and an appreciation for life, family, and friends that I could have only gained through this cancer journey.

I’d like to leave you with this…If you’re a woman, please check your tatas once a month. If you’re a man, please check yourself too and share this story with a woman in your life. For all, hug more, love more and never miss an opportunity to let someone you care about know how you feel about them. Live for today and don’t let your plans for the future prevent you from living your best life now! A self-breast exam saved my life. It could save yours too.

Thriving, not just surviving ~ Suzy

~ How You Can Help ~

Donate to 305 Pink Pack and directly affect the life of someone undergoing active cancer treatment in South Florida.

Donate to METAvivor which provides support and research for those living with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer nationwide.

Giving Thanks

I am forever thankful to the amazing team at the Miami Cancer Institute. From my brilliant surgical oncologist Dr. Starr Mautner (whom I now consider a friend), to my medical oncologist Dr. Guardiola who has always gone above and beyond and explains every detail along the way, to my wonderfully sweet and attentive radiation doctor, Dr. Panoff, the happy radiation team, my patient navigator Vivian and all the staff from the survivorship department.

To my amazing group of sisters-from-other-misters (Ali, Ana, Angelique, Cathy, Illian, Nadya and Nidza), who joined me on zoom calls to keep my spirits up, who sent me food and care packages to make me comfortable, my amazing colleagues and lady bosses Sandy Cleary and Darlene Carenza for standing by me through thick and thin and supporting me through this crazy journey when there were days that my schedule had more doctors appointments than work meetings, to my South Florida IMA family who came together to show me their love and support and for wonderful organizations like 305 Pink Pack and Caminando Con Olga who offered much needed support and most importantly, to my husband, Rick Gomez who put his entire life aside to care for me and our son. For all of you and for those whom I may have left out (because it takes a village to fight and beat cancer) THANK YOU. Please know that your love and support was an integral part of my success story.

Helpful Resources:

  1. 305 Pink Pack: Offers direct services and support to women in South Florida going through active cancer treatment.

  2. Bright Spot Network: Helping families through cancer.

  3. Warrior Bags: Send a cancer care package.

  4. Area based assistance programs: Find food assistance, help paying bills, and other free or reduced cost programs.

  5. EBeauty Wigs: Their mission is to enhance and strengthen the education, charitable and community support network for women undergoing cancer treatments.

  6. Rene of Paris: Amore Collection wigs are designed with sensitive scalps in mind.

  7. Christine Headwear: Scarf and turban designs made from natural materials for very sensitive scalps.

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