“I’ve got this.”
That’s been Sara Mazzitelli’s mantra through her battle with breast cancer.
Sara, a Forty Fort resident and sixth grade math teacher in the Wyoming Area School District, has been treated by doctors and bolstered by her family, boyfriend, friends and students, but she has also summoned strength from within for her fight.
The 32-year-old felt a lump in her breast in December 2015 but didn’t immediately see a doctor.
The mass was still there by the end of January so Sara’s mother, Helen, suggested she be examined.
“I went to my family doctor and he said, ‘It’s strange. We’ll send you for tests,’” Sara said. “That was February fourth and the rest of February was a blur. I had appointment after appointment between MRIs, the mammogram and all that stuff. By February 21st, I had a diagnosis.”
Dr. Kristine Kelley, at Delta Medix Breast Care Center in Scranton, diagnosed Sara with stage three triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of IDC that does not respond to hormone treatments and affects only 15 percent of breast cancer patients. The IDC had left the duct and spread to her breast tissue and several lymph nodes on her right side.
Instead of feeling devastated, Sara was pragmatic.
“I’m an emotional person; that’s for sure,” Sara said. “But when I got the news, I didn’t cry. By the time I found out, even though it was only three weeks later, I had prepared myself for the worst. I had moments when I cried throughout, but when it first happened, I was like, ‘This is it, and now I have to deal with it.’”
Sara was selected for a clinical trial at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She began chemotherapy on March 31, and responded better than most, but losing her hair was tough.
“That was one of the things that messed with me,” she said. “In the shower, I would cry, because it was coming out. I finally shaved my head right after the Fourth of July and thought, ‘I should have done this sooner.’ I would have saved myself so much worrying.”
Toward the end of her chemo treatments, the lump in her breast was still not shrinking.
“That was my first setback,” she said. “The beginning of the process went a lot faster for me than it does for some people, so that was a blessing. I remember saying to my boyfriend, ‘Everything was going so well; something had to happen.’”
Because she tested positive for the BRCA gene, a gene that heightens the risk of certain cancers, Sara opted to have a double mastectomy. Surgeons removed her infected tissue and conducted reconstructive surgery on Aug. 31.
A few days later, she awoke at home with severe pain in her left breast. A blood clot had formed in her breast tissue.
“I was in the hospital for 10 days in September,” Sara said. “That was the worst. The chemo became part of a routine and I didn’t think about it. The surgery changed things, because I was stuck in the hospital.”
Sara’s surgeon was able to save her breast tissue though; then she got even better news.
“I had a complete response, which is amazing, because only two to three percent of women have a pathogenic complete response,” Sara said. “All of the tissue and lymph nodes they removed, there’s no residual cancer.”
Sara has been recovering for four weeks, and plans to return to school around November if her healing continues.
“The next five years is critical,” she said. “If you can make it through that without a recurrence, it’s more unlikely that it will happen again.”
While positivity has carried her through her diagnosis and treatment, Sara said she wouldn’t have been able to stay optimistic without her family and friends.
Her mother spent all 10 days in the hospital with her. Her sister, Lauren, and boyfriend, Matt Green, collaborated on a GoFundMe page to help offset medical expenses.
“The response to that within 24 hours, I was taken aback by it,” Sara said. “The support system is everything. I heard from people I haven’t seen or talked to since I graduated high school.”
Helen said she was astounded by her daughter’s courage and determination.
“She took every step of this journey a day at a time and did not dwell on what was to come,” she said. “She had courage to take on those physical things that come with the disease — like the courage to walk around with no wig and feel comfortable and confident. Her continued smile overshadowed the baldness in every photo we have.”
Sara and Matt had been dating for five months when she received her diagnosis.
“Not once did he say, ‘I can’t do this,’” Sara said.
Matt said Sara’s positivity and belly-laugh persona are “infectious.”
“Not once was she ever questioning the universe, ‘Why me?’ Matt said. “She just accepted it and rolled up her sleeves to kick butt.”
A friend of Sara’s reached out to her substitute and arranged to have Sara’s students make get-well-cards for her while she was on leave. One card was mailed to Sara every few days over the summer.
“I even got messages from the parents of my students,” Sara said. “To be called inspiring is weird for me. I’m not big on attention, but it was awesome.”
Sara now takes her next hopeful step, visiting her oncologist every six months to follow up on her surgery. She says to anyone who gets diagnosed with breast cancer, find good doctors, trust them and stay positive.
“The thing about breast cancer is, hopefully, if it’s not past a certain stage, it’s treatable,” Sara said. “You can’t let it change everything. You can’t let it define your life.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts