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Cancer Institute

Breast Cancer Distant Memory

Thanks to Positive Attitude and Top-Notch Care, Breast Cancer a Distant Memory for Young Woman

When Talia Piazza first discovered a lump in her breast at the age of 25, she didn’t see any reason to be alarmed. She was a portrait of good health and the lump seemed small. She thought it was most likely a benign condition, such as a lumpy breast or fibrocystic disease. What’s more, statistics were in her favor. Breast cancer is extremely rare in younger women: less than 5 percent of all breast cancers occur in women who are younger than 40. Plus there was no history of cancer in the families of her mother and father.

But when the lump became larger, Talia confided with her mother, an OR nurse at Canonsburg Hospital. They both agreed that this situation was nothing to take lightly. Talia had a mammogram and an ultrasound test. She thought the doctor would tell her she only had a benign cyst. Instead, Talia learned she potentially had something much more serious. A biopsy soon confirmed her worst fears: she had Stage IIA breast cancer.

“I was shocked and confused,” said Talia, a resident of Bellevue. “I didn’t think breast cancer could happen to me—not then. It’s not the kind of thing a 25-year-old woman even considers.”

An energetic woman with an extremely positive attitude, Talia never despairs when faced with a setback. For Talia, any problem can be overcome with determination and the right plan—even cancer.

“After I got the news, I took a deep breath and told myself, ‘These are the cards I’ve been dealt with. I can get through this.’ I also scripted out what I would tell my parents, relatives and friends. I knew they would be devastated. I wanted to make sure, from the get go, that my support system felt reassured and confident that I was ok and would get through this. I’m a firm believer that the energy you give off is what you’ll get back.”

Talia went online to search for the cancer specialists who could provide her with optimal care. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of the country’s top breast cancer providers was virtually in her own backyard.

“I wanted nothing but the best and was prepared to travel to another state to get the best care,” said Talia. “I discovered that Allegheny General Hospital has a great deal of experience in treating young women who have breast cancer.”

One of Pittsburgh’s leading centers for breast cancer, Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) offers diagnostic breast imaging, bone densitometry testing, medical oncology, genetic counseling, a high-risk breast program, and patient education programs, such as the Informed Decision Making Program. Allegheny General is also the home institution and a participant in studies conducted by the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP), a world-renowned research organization that is on the leading edge of the newest treatments for breast cancer.

At AGH, Talia met with Thomas Julian, MD, Director of the Division of Breast Surgical Oncology, and Jane Raymond, MD, Director of the Division of Medical Oncology. “Dr. Julian and Dr. Raymond were great,” said Talia. “They outlined my treatment options, which included lumpectomy, mastectomy, bi-lateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and/or radiation. I felt assured that they had my best interests at heart.”

According to Dr. Raymond, Talia had several things in her favor as she started treatment. “The tumor in Talia’s breast was moderate in size and the lymph nodes were negative,” said Dr. Raymond. “Also, the tumor was hormone responsive. We felt that with the right treatment plan that Talia’s outcome would be excellent.”

After some deliberation, Talia decided to first have chemotherapy to shrink the size of the tumor, followed by surgery and breast reconstruction. After treatment, Talia would take tamoxifen for five years. This drug helps prevent the original breast cancer from returning to the body.

In early February 2009, Talia started aggressive chemotherapy treatment: she had six rounds of neo-adjuvant chemotherapy every three weeks. This experience was grueling, both physically and emotionally. For Talia, one of the more uncomfortable aspects of chemotherapy was dealing with the side effects. But always the optimist, Talia handled her temporary inconvenience with grace and humor.

“I had long, luxurious hair and was told to expect hair loss during chemo,” Talia recalls. “Sure enough, after my first round of chemotherapy, my hair started to come out in clumps. Since I was going to lose my hair, I decided to lose it in style. I invited my family and friends to my place, got a couple bottles of wine, and had a hair shaving party. Everyone thought my punk haircut looked cute. Even when I eventually lost all of my hair, I wasn’t ashamed to go out in public. I thought it would be a great way to connect with people and help raise awareness about cancer.”

Once chemotherapy was completed, Talia decided to have a bi-lateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) and breast reconstruction. “This was a pretty radical course of action, but I felt this was the best option to prevent cancer from coming back,” she noted. “Both my doctors supported me in this decision.”

Talia took a three-month leave from her position as Program Director for the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. During this time, she had the bi-lateral mastectomy and then six total reconstruction surgeries and procedures. “I can’t say enough about the wonderful care that my doctors, nurses and therapists provided me. I feel blessed that I got my care at Allegheny General.”

Three years later, Talia is cancer-free and living life to the fullest. “It’s almost hard to believe I ever had cancer,” said Talia, who keeps fit by biking, hiking and camping. “I feel healthier than ever and am extremely optimistic about the future.” She adds that having cancer made her an even better person. “This experience helped put life into perspective. I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to experience everything and anything I can.”

Talia, now 28, is so grateful for the support she received as a cancer patient that she tries to give something back to the community. She volunteers for Gilda’s Club and frequently talks with other young women who have cancer. Talia’s message to other breast cancer patients is one of hope. “It’s important to stay positive and not treat a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence,” she said.

Both of Talia’s doctors were impressed by her resiliency and optimism. “Talia did a remarkable job of getting through her breast cancer,” said Dr. Raymond. “She always had a smile on her face and never complained. Talia was a great inspiration to all of us.” Added Dr. Julian: “Talia is a very motivated individual who quickly grasped the severity of her problem and learned of the options that would help her. She made the difficult choices that she felt were best for her well being. She could be a poster woman in the battle against breast cancer.”

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