Before February 6, 2013, Amelia Coffaro was a normal 28-year-old woman. She was in New York City, working as a photographer and living her dream. But everything changed for her on that day in February.
For several months, Amelia had been experiencing back pain – when she was home in July of 2012 for a routine physical, an x-ray revealed a compressed disc. She also had a small lump in her chest, but it was believed to be just a mass of inflamed tissue. Her doctor instructed her to monitor it closely and Amelia returned to her life in New York.
“I was so busy and always on the go. When you’re going, going, going you kind of don’t feel the symptoms,” says Amelia. “It’s not like I was ever feeling really sick.”
But over the following months the back pain persisted and the lump got bigger. Right after New Year’s, Amelia knew something was wrong. On February 5, she was on a plane back to Milwaukee and the next day she was at Columbia St. Mary’s.
“My doctor took one look and knew immediately,” she says.
Amelia was sent for an emergency mammogram, breast MRI and an ultrasound. Later that same day she had a biopsy and her diagnosis came in: Stage 3 Inflammatory Invasive Breast Cancer.
“I remember being sad and scared,” she says. “It’s a surreal thing. Your life literally changes in an instant.”
Amelia’s cancer care team was quickly assembled and immediately got to work on her treatment plan. “I love that I had this team of women who were strong and caring. It’s a great thing,” she says. “They took the very clinical aspect of being in treatment out of treatment. They're compassionate, and they're warm and understanding. I felt like I was in the best hands possible.”
Deb Theine, Amelia’s Nurse Navigator, especially helped foster that warm and caring environment. She was by Amelia’s side during the entire process, explaining her diagnosis and treatment plan, answering any and all questions, scheduling all of her appointments and lending endless emotional support and encouragement.
Nurse Navigators are a key component of CSM’s full continuum of cancer care. And they spring to action immediately. Often within minutes of receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, a patient will receive a call from one of CSM’s Nurse Navigators.
“In the beginning, when you can’t even think yet, when you can’t even process yet, you don’t even know what to be thinking about – somebody’s got your back and is watching over you,” says Deb Theine, who was CSM’s first Nurse Navigator in 1997. “That brings such a sense of peace for the women.”
Just one week later, on Valentine’s Day, Amelia started chemotherapy. She underwent surgery on May 23, and finished up her second course of chemotherapy in late August. She followed that up with a four-week course of radiation, and finished her last 40 weeks of chemotherapy in June.
“It’s a long road. But if there ever was a time to just be, this was the time,” says Amelia. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, you just need to let go and trust that these doctors will see you through. The only thing you can choose is your attitude. You choose to be positive and you can choose to be happy.”
Amelia’s positive attitude and Zen-like calmness in the face of so much uncertainty is remarkable. For most 28-year-olds, cancer is probably the absolute last thing on their mind. Doctors don’t even recommend women get annual mammograms until they reach age 40. But in increasing numbers, young woman are developing this disease.
While still relatively rare, a recent study by The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that in 2009 cases of advanced breast cancer were found in 2.9 per 100,000 women age 25 to 39. That’s up from 1.53 per 100,000 three decades ago. That increase translates to about 550 more cases per year. Breast cancer is a traumatic diagnosis for anyone, but when it strikes someone so young it’s especially devastating.
Amelia refused to dwell on that, though. For her, she found peace by staying busy and, as best as she could, continuing to do the things that made her who she was before the diagnosis. As a photographer, she found solace and inspiration through her viewfinder. As a cancer patient, she continued to use her camera as an expression of herself. From the very beginning, Amelia documented her experience. It helped her stay balanced and remember who she is.
“Having that camera helped take me outside of myself,” she says. “I wasn’t sitting there as a cancer patient, I was just a curious observer. That helped with the fear.”
Today, Amelia is cancer-free. She is still taking pictures and now teaches yoga to empower those experiencing a cancer journey as was to help manage, heal and prevent illness.