Melissa Cáceres describes herself and her mom both as “women of action.”
So, it was no surprise that in early 2021, when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, Melissa, 31, took time off work and wedding planning to fly home to Miami for several weeks. She was there to help her mom recover after a double mastectomy and go to appointments, and she was there to nudge her mom to get the genetic testing her doctor recommended.
Those results showed that Melissa’s mom was positive for the PALB2 gene mutation, which is associated with a higher risk of breast and other cancers. Working with her mom’s surgical oncologist while she was in Miami, Melissa immediately got tested and found out she was also a carrier. Her mom’s doctor recommended that Melissa start a stepped-up breast screening regimen.
“I didn’t even want to wait until I got back home to New York to start my screenings,” Melissa said. “I was like, ‘This needs to happen now.’”
At Melissa’s very first mammogram and breast MRI in Miami in June, doctors saw a tiny, suspicious area, and she had a biopsy about a month later. The office then called to tell her it was benign.
“I thought, ‘Great, wonderful, I can move on with my life and just keep doing my testing,” Melissa remembered thinking.
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But a few days later, the radiologist called back to say that she wasn’t sure they’d gotten the right spot and recommended Melissa get another biopsy.
As her mom was recovering from her reconstruction surgery—happy to have found out she was done with treatment and didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation—Melissa headed back to New York.
After another biopsy, Melissa got the call that the suspicious area was, in fact, breast cancer.
“I just left my body,” she said. “I was alone in front of my desk and my stomach just dropped and I fell to the floor. Once I gathered myself, I was in action mode asking, ‘What happens now?”
Melissa underwent a lumpectomy on her breast and, after two weeks of recovery, completed 20 rounds of radiation. Thanks to the BCRF-supported OncotypeDX test, Melissa found out she could safely skip chemotherapy. With active treatment behind her, she is now on hormone therapy to prevent recurrence and gets screened every six months (alternating between mammogram and breast MRI).
Around the time of her treatment, Melissa and her then-fiancé were planning to get married.
“Telling my fiancé that I had breast cancer and that I was scared almost hurt even more than when I heard it myself,” she said. “I had to find the courage to tell my mom, too, because I knew this was going to crush her.”
The couple decided to postpone their wedding celebration but got legally married in a small ceremony and brunch right after Melissa finished treatment.
“It was lovely to celebrate something,” she said. “It just felt like a reward for us.”
Now, Melissa is glad to be on the other side of treatment and returning to normal life—planning her wedding, regaining her strength, spending time with her husband and family.
Reflecting on her experience now, Melissa also looks at herself a little differently.
“I was surprised by how strong I actually was and how much I could handle,” she said. “I worried I’d come out the other side in pieces. But I learned I was capable of so much more than I give myself credit for.”
And today, she credits breast cancer research for her outcome and her mom’s—and for empowering them both to take actions for their own health.
“Research is the reason my cancer was caught this early,” she said. “It gave me and my doctors information so they could give me a treatment plan to survive this. Doctors gave my mom and I good advice so we could make decisions. Because of all the available technology and research, I felt like I had the tools to save my life.”
Read more stories from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason storytelling initiative here.
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