Breast Cancer: Jo-Ann Agcaoili’s Story

As told to Wennie Conedy

Hi. My name is Jo-Ann.

I am a mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter and a friend.
I am also a two-time cancer survivor. And this is my story.

I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), in 2010, with a recurrence in 2014.

 Great friend, I was in the East coast when I was diagnosed. June 2010 (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

Great friend, I was in the East coast when I was diagnosed. June 2010 (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

When I was first diagnosed at the young age of 38, my surgeon and oncologist felt I might have the aggressive form of IDC, and they acted swiftly to address my situation. My oncologist presented two options: lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation or a mastectomy, which eliminated the need for chemotherapy and radiation.

I chose to do a lumpectomy; I felt it was the best choice for me. Removing the lump would allow me to keep my breast. And as a young, single mother, my breasts helped define who I was.

My cancer journey, in terms of pain and discomfort, was no different from that of anyone who has cancer. I was lucky; I had unwavering love and support from my family, my friends, my colleagues and my God. Without them, my journey would have been much more challenging. They were with me during my doctor's visits; they were with me during my chemo treatments; they were with me as I was recovering from surgery.

And when I lost my hair, they were with me. This was the single most devastating side effect of the chemotherapy that hit me. I could handle the other side effects of chemo. But the hair loss? It hit me in the gut as it was the definitive sign that I was sick. In spite of the hair loss, I knew I was so loved.

My dear brother was stoic when I asked him to shave my head. He was so strong when I was so weak. And you know what? He shaved his head too, in solidarity.

 First chemo session (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

First chemo session (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

 My brother who shaved his head in solidarity (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

My brother who shaved his head in solidarity (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

And with the Lord's blessing, I went into remission.

Through my journey, I learned that I needed to employ all the tools at my disposal to give myself a fighting chance. Medical intervention is one tool. I educated myself by reading, reaching out and utilizing community resources, understanding my treatment options, and surrounding myself with people who make me happy and give me hope -- all these tools made me stronger and gave me the courage to fight this battle.

Two community organizations, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the American Cancer Society, provided information, books, pamphlets and a community of individuals who were on the same journey as me. I owe a lot to these two organizations, and it is with fervor and zeal that I participate in the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. I am inspired to meet fellow survivors and hear their stories of hope. I am proud to stand tall with survivors and family members of those who have lost a loved one.

 2011 Susan G Komen Race for the Cure (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

2011 Susan G Komen Race for the Cure (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

 2015 Relay for Life (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

2015 Relay for Life (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

 Pink Party to raise awareness 2015 (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

Pink Party to raise awareness 2015 (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

After my first bout with IDC, I became more diligent doing self-checks. It was during one of those self-checks in 2014 that I felt another lump, in the same breast. My sense of comfort was shattered once again. My cancer was back.

This time, I felt devastated and betrayed by my body. I started to question why this was happening to me again. I took care of myself. I ate the right foods, I exercised, I lived a clean and healthy lifestyle. The feeling that my body betrayed me, my hopes and my dreams was numbing. I handled this second round differently. I decided to tackle this recurrence more aggressively.

This time, I chose the option of a double mastectomy. I wanted to minimize the risk of cancer recurring and spreading. The upside of this is that I didn't have to go through radiation or chemotherapy. The downside was I was looking at reconstructive surgery. But even with that, I still had challenges. It went well until we found out that my skin was not healing well as a result of previous radiation treatments. Instead of having full reconstructive surgery, I ended up with a partial reconstruction.

 2014 several weeks after surgery (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

2014 several weeks after surgery (Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Agcaoili)

According to The Hawaii Medical Journal of July 2010: "Did you know that Filipina women are more likely to die from breast cancer than their major Asian-American counterparts, even though they do not have the highest incidence of that cancer. And analysis shows that they have a more advanced stage at the time of diagnosis and they have low rates of compliance to mammography guidelines, both of which factors may contribute to their high mortality rate."

Sobering data, isn't it? So what does this tell us? Early detection is key. Don't postpone that visit to the doctor. Take time out from your day to do self-checks. Don't waffle from getting a mammogram. Those few seconds of discomfort may save your life. They saved mine.

And so I go forward in life, knowing that in spite of all my scars and scares, I know I am loved. I am cherished. I am a warrior.