Melissa feels fortunate to be able to share her story today, because without the concern and knowledge of an attentive doctor, who sent her to get an MRI following a routine mammogram, she's not sure she'd still be with us. Melissa Di Persio (aka Melissa D. Unicorn, post diagnosis and surgery) shares her story and offers powerful words of wisdom in hopes of helping other women who may be going through something similar.
She states, a "challenging aspect for me has been watching so many women suffer – and I don’t mean from the cancer itself per se, but in terms of the after effects/body acceptance. I have always been proud to be a unicorn – I feel no shame towards my scars, because they have absolutely no bearing on the person I am in this world. All the things about me that truly matter were still there and perfectly intact when I woke up from surgery."
To read more about Melissa’s treatment plan and how she arrived at that course of action, how she found the best care, her advice to newly diagnosed women and more, read our latest In Her Words below.
Name: Melissa Di Persio (aka Melissa D. Unicorn)
Location: Ontario, Canada
Current Health Status: Excellent!
Tell us a little but about yourself.
I live in Ontario, Canada and work in Customer Service for a New Home Builder. I have been married for 16 years and have a dog named Winnie (the Pooch). I enjoy writing, baking and being at the lake at my family cottage. I used to be a licensed skydiver with 200 skydives but haven’t jumped in a while.
When were you diagnosed with cancer?
I was diagnosed at 39 – six days before I turned 40 – in Nov 2018. I had an itchy/irritated, flaky nipple (no lump that I could feel) and was at an appointment with my family doctor for a regular check-up when I decided to mention it. She did a very thorough breast exam and said that she thought she might feel something. So she scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound just to make sure “nothing sinister” was going on. My mammogram came back 100% clear, but my ultrasound detected a small suspicious mass. I had a core biopsy that came back with the diagnosis of IDC. I had a right side mastectomy three weeks later (four days before Christmas) where it was determined that I actually had three tumors – not just the one they originally thought – along with three positive lymph nodes out of the six that were removed.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
Complete and utter shock – it felt like the whole world had just been violently shoved off its axis. I was otherwise healthy and had no family history.
How did your friends and family take the news?
I was very open with everyone about what was going on from day one. Everyone was, of course, shocked and concerned – most of all my husband and parents obviously. But everyone – including my workplace - was incredibly and amazingly supportive from the get-go.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
Three weeks after my diagnosis, I had a right side mastectomy to flat. Everything was a total blur and honestly, I never even gave thought to having a double. All I thought about was taking away the area that had cancer. I briefly considered reconstruction mostly because it seemed to be the expectation given my age. But everything was happening around the holidays, and reconstruction requires a meeting between the general surgeon, plastic surgeon and radiation oncologist – and it would have taken some time (after the Xmas holidays) to get them all in one room. I was extremely anxious and not prepared to wait that long. I figured that reconstruction was not the primary concern and something I could do down the road if I so desired. So, I opted for the first available surgical appointment for a mastectomy. I dubbed myself a ‘unicorn” from that point.
After my pathology came back showing more extensive cancer than what was thought (stage 2B vs Stage 1) – I was sent to oncology and I underwent 16 weeks (eight rounds) of dose-dense chemo – four AC and four Taxol. I wore a unicorn hat and unicorn pajamas to every treatment. I then went back and had a lymph node dissection where nine more nodes were removed (two were still positive). Then, I had 25 rounds of radiation. After chemo, I started hormone blockers and after radiation, I started Zoladex injections (as my cancer was 100% estrogen positive). I was supposed to have an oophorectomy three or four months later, but then Covid hit. So I remained on the shots, and my surgery was delayed until September 2021. I am still on hormone blockers, and I do Zometa infusions every six months to protect my bones. As surveillance, I alternate mammograms with MRI’s every six months, as I have since learned that mammograms are often ineffective on dense breasts (my case as proof!)
Were you able to work through treatment?
My company was understanding enough to allow me to take some time off and then, work part-time from home until I felt well enough to return to the office full-time.
Where and how have you found the best care?
The best care has come from the nurses and support staff. My general surgeon’s nurse was my first major life-line – she was the one who supported me after I was diagnosed and handled every one of my panicked phone calls with infinite patience and kindness. The surgical and cancer centre nurses were all lovely and exceptional – every one of them.
Have you received any additional support or alternative therapies? If so, what kind, and have they been they beneficial?
One great resource is MyBCTeam.com. It is a site comprised solely of women with BC – from all over the world with all different stages/types. There is nothing more important than being in communication and having the support of those who truly “get it” – because they have been there or are still in the trenches with you.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
My husband has been amazing and came with me to every single appointment/treatment since the day of my core biopsy. Also, my parents and family (especially my Mom’s cousin who had BC over 30 years ago and is also a unicorn who affectionately named us “TU1” and “TU2” (Team Unicorn 1 & Team Unicorn 2), friends, boss/co-workers, and all of my incredible “Shitty Titty Committee” sisters.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
Before I was diagnosed, cancer was something I obviously knew about, but it felt kind of… distant to me. It was a really sad, terrible thing that seemed to affect others, but not me or those closest to me. I had no friends who had been through it (except for maybe elderly grandparents) and very little cancer of any kind in my own family. Since my diagnosis, I feel like it’s everywhere now! I made a wonderful new friend who was going though treatment at the same time as me. We had plans to finally meet up in person when the pandemic hit and her cancer came back suddenly with a vengeance. Within a week of her recurrence, she passed at age 33. The universe is a breathtakingly unfair place sometimes.
The other challenging aspect for me has been watching so many women suffer – and I don’t mean from the cancer itself per se, but in terms of the after effects/body acceptance. I have always been proud to be a unicorn – I feel no shame towards my scars because they have absolutely no bearing on the person I am in this world. All the things about me that truly matter were still there and perfectly intact when I woke up from surgery. But I have read the comments of and corresponded with a lot of women who suffer enormously through the treatment process with the loss of hair to scars to weight gain. It’s definitely understandable – the society we live in now, especially with the Instagram filters, photoshop, air-brushing and editing, makes it that much harder for women to accept these major changes to their bodies that were not their choice or in their control. We already try to live up to these ridiculous, utterly fake standards this world sets for us, so what’s a woman to do after her body has been put through the hellish battle of BC?
My advice to women feeling this way is usually this: I tell her to imagine that this is not happening to her. I tell her to imagine that it’s happening to another woman she really loves: her daughter, sister, best friend. I tell her to imagine that daughter/sister/best friend anguishing and suffering over her body like she herself is now. What would she say to her? What would she do? Would she tell her loved one that she’s hideous and unworthy and Frankenstein-ish? Of course not! She would shower her with unconditional love and kindness and infinite reassurance. She would remind her that all of the things that give her true value and make her the awesome woman and human being she is in this world have precisely ZERO to do with whether or not she can fill out two bra cups, or one – or none. I would tell her to think of all those things she KNOWS she would say and do for her loved one, and then ask her why she believes she is even one bit less deserving of that same level of love, kindness and reassurance?
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wish I had been more knowledgeable about cancer in general, even though it’s a very unpleasant topic. I wish I knew about dense breasts and how mammograms miss up to 40% of cancers in the most dense breasts. Had my doctor not had the wisdom to send me for an ultrasound in conjunction with my mammogram, I likely wouldn’t be here today.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
“Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure” :)
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
See my statement above. And also – YOU DO YOU. Whatever decisions you make – make absolutely sure you are making them for YOU, and not for anyone else. Not for your family, friends, men – anyone.
And for the love of God – avoid “Dr. Google” until you have all the information about your specific diagnosis in front of you. There is some good information online but also a lot of inaccurate, fear-mongering garbage. It will not help you - you will only send your anxiety sky-rocketing if you gorge on that stuff. Just Breathe. Take it all one step, one appointment, one test/treatment at a time.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I’m proud of the BC community, in general. Its ability to enable all sisters to come together, taking their mind-boggingly difficult experiences and turning them it into a beautiful network of support.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness? How have you changed?
Above all else, I feel grateful! grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained, the love and support I’ve been shown, all the care I’ve received, the work of the amazing nurses and doctors I’ve been privy to, the incredible BC sisters I’ve gotten to know, and the fact that I feel great today. I’m grateful for every one of my scars, the tiny bit of numbness still remaining in the tips of my toes, and my one numb, forever hairless arm pit. Because all of it means I’m still here!