Annamarie D Never Doubt Your Strength

“I realized I can truly get through anything.”

Like other Americans, Annamarie DePaola pressed “pause” on her life when the COVID-19 pandemic upended normalcy, scrambled routines and forced people into isolation. The 58-year-old Brick resident worked from home as a Mary Kay consultant, though she still spent much of her time caring for her youngest son, Joseph, who has autism.

She knew the importance of taking care of herself as well and usually kept on top of health matters such as routine screenings. But due to the pandemic, the mammogram she had scheduled for June 2020 was delayed. It wasn’t until March 2021 that she was fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and felt comfortable resuming regular health care appointments.

Fortunately, she prioritized catching up on her breast cancer screening first. The overdue mammogram found a suspicious area. When a biopsy was performed, it confirmed one of her worst fears: She had breast cancer.

“I was totally dumbfounded,” Annamarie says. “I felt so shocked, disappointed and surprised because, other than during COVID, I really kept up with my health care.”

Her thoughts immediately turned to Joseph. “My first concern was my son and how I’d care for him during treatment,” she says. “It was all very overwhelming.”

One Step at a Time

Annamarie began to feel reassured almost from the first moment of care at Community Medical Center (CMC). She first received a call from Theresa Hayden, RN, BSN, OCN-CSW, a clinical breast nurse navigator who would become a trusted confidante during treatment.

Leny M. Rada-Banat, MD
Leny M.
Rada-Banat, MD

“She called right away, which was so helpful because you just don’t know what to do first,” Annamarie says. “She started with ‘How are you?’ and ended with ‘This is all very normal, and now this is what you need to do, step by step.’ She kind of grabs you by the hand and shows you the way.”

The first checkpoint was Leny M. Rada-Banat, MD, a radiologist at CMC, who confirmed Annamarie’s diagnosis and provided important details. Annamarie’s breast cancer was stage 1, a designation that meant the cancer was still small— hers looked about 1.5 cm in size—and hadn’t spread significantly.

Annamarie met with Sumy Chang, MD, a breast surgeon at CMC, who scheduled a lumpectomy for mid-May. This outpatient procedure removed cancerous growths from the breast along with small amounts of surrounding tissue while preserving the breast as a whole.

Sumy Chang, MD
Sumy Chang, MD

“Her tumor was in a favorable location,” Dr. Chang says. “It was in the center portion of her breast, where abnormal tissue is easier to remove and the incision can be hidden in the areola so that there isn’t a noticeable scar. I was even able to rearrange the breast tissue and do a little bit of a lift.”

At a follow-up visit 10 days after the surgery, both Dr. Chang and Annamarie were pleased with the outcome. But Annamarie’s comprehensive cancer care included further testing.

Fielding a Curveball

The unexpected news came a month after surgery. Testing for certain patients includes a measure that determines the aggressiveness of a tumor and identifies those who might benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy. Annamarie’s score came back high.

Suddenly, the course of Annamarie’s treatment changed. “At the end of everything I’d been through to that point, I’d thought, ‘At least I don’t need chemo,’” she says. “But it turned out I did, which was a very big curveball in the plan.”

She started chemotherapy in July 2021. She took a break from treatment for a few weeks over the holidays and finished in January 2022. During her treatment, Annamarie felt lucky to have the support of her husband, Anthony, and her 26-year-old son, Anthony III, who stepped in to care for Joseph. “It was all very hard, but you do what you have to do to survive and try to be patient with yourself,” Annamarie says.

Oncology nurses provided much needed support for handling the physical and emotional challenges of chemotherapy. “They are a whole different level of nursing,” Annamarie says. “The nurses couldn’t have made it any better or made me more comfortable in a bad situation.”

Annamarie has now completed a course that included radiation, chemotherapy and physical therapy. She’ll continue taking an aromatase inhibitor, an estrogen-blocking medication, for the next five years to help prevent a recurrence.

Today, both Annamarie’s attitude and prognosis are positive. Her chances of a recurrence are low. “We have very high expectations for her,” says Dr. Chang.

Annamarie feels the lessons she’s learned offer a message to other patients or anyone going through hard times: Never doubt your strength. “I felt like life had already handed me a lot to deal with before this, but I realized I can truly get through anything,” she says. “Even when it doesn’t seem like you can possibly take on any more, you can—and you will surprise yourself by how triumphantly you get through it.”

Learn more about oncology services at Community Medical Center.