My Cancer Experience Has Come Full Circle

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From experiencing the death of loved ones to receiving my own diagnosis and becoming involved in advocacy, my cancer experience has come full circle.

Mara, their father, and Debbie Denardi

Debbie Denardi (right) and her sister, Mara (left) with their father (center).

My story began years ago in Spain where my maternal grandparents lived before immigrating to Argentina where my mother and her three sisters were born. My mother married in Argentina and that is where my sister and I were born. It was devastating for my family as my mother and three of her sisters passed away after they each faced breast and ovarian cancer. They were all between the ages of 39 and 45 years old. They were so young!

Then, when my sister was 11 and I was 13 years old, our mom passed away. When we were in our 30s, our dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but fortunately, they caught it early. His brother died of metastatic prostate cancer and my paternal grandfather died after a colon cancer diagnosis.

I always just “knew” I was going to have cancer, too.

In 2010 my life changed completely with a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis. I felt a lump four months after having a complete physical checkup in December 2009 that included a clear mammogram and ultrasound. I thought the lump would be another benign fibroadenoma. My doctor ordered a biopsy. I picked up the biopsy results and I read the word I did not want to read, interpret or accept: “carcinoma.”

Genetic Testing Revealed a Familial Risk

I wondered about the source of my cancer. With my family history from my mom’s side plus the prostate and colon cancer from my dad’s side, my oncologist decided to discuss genetic testing with me. Until this moment, I had no idea that such tests existed. I followed my oncologist’s advice and proceeded with genetic testing.

The result came back positive for the BRCA1 mutation. I underwent all the necessary surgeries and treatments. I was overwhelmed. I continue my screening with my breast and gynecologic oncologists to make sure that we can detect any cancer type early.

My journey back to health started with faith and hope. Throughout my cancer diagnosis, treatments and surgeries, my two sons, Alex and Michael, were my guardian angels. They were there for me every step of the way to recovery. I was also blessed with wonderful friends and neighbors, making me fortunate to never be alone during this experience.

I am now 62 years old and a 14-year breast cancer survivor.

I Found Joy in Advocacy and Policy

After my recovery I found joy in providing patient support. I was trained to provide peer support to newly diagnosed patients and families. Later, I found that public policy was extremely important for our community, and I started participating in advocacy in Florida and in Washington D.C. Representing the Latino/a community was recognized and appreciated. My perspective is heard, and I am hopeful that issues our community faces daily are being recognized and given the importance that is required.

Soon after meeting with very enthusiastic research advocates, I started my journey to learn about cancer biology and research. I now serve as a consumer reviewer for leading cancer organizations. Patient participation will ensure that research continue to be relevant to cancer patients.

Alex, Debbie and Michael, stand in front of a large Christmas tree hugging and smiling

Debbie Denardi said that her sons, Alex and Michael, were her "guardian angels" during her cancer experience.

In December 2023, I decided to enroll in a clinical trial for BRCA1/2-positive patients. The study is designed to study patients with BRCA mutations and develop a biomarker to detect pancreatic cancer early. During my conversation with the investigator, and after reviewing my personal and family history related to gastrointestinal and prostate cancers in my family, it was again recommended that I undergo genetic testing.

Tests have improved a lot in the last 15 years and now include new mutations that I was not tested for. The results confirmed my BRCA1 mutation and a new one, Lynch syndrome.

Now I run half marathons with the purpose of raising funds for research, advocacy and support. I am also interested in sharing all the information available in the United States with other Latin American countries. When I talk to a person who has a family history of cancer, I am passionate about suggesting they contact a certified genetic counselor who can correctly counsel them on their own situation. I know from my own story that this information can save lives. I want all women and men to empower themselves with knowledge so that they may make the best health care decisions for themselves and their family.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer changed my life, and my journey finally has come to a full circle. It started with my mother, aunts and grandfather being diagnosed with cancer and not having the possibility of finding treatments to prevent their early deaths. Now I was able to survive and thrive and so will my other family members and our hereditary cancer community thanks to research. I am very passionate about participation in research and clinical trials. Our participation will ensure better treatments and hopefully prevention in the near future.

My hope is for a world without cancer. In the meantime, I want to share what I know with Spanish-speaking communities, so they have the information and support they need and deserve.

This post was written and submitted by Debbie Denardi. The article reflects the views of Denardi and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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