Breast cancer survivor shares her battle during COVID-19 pandemic

In March, the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 had become a pandemic, and the U.S declared a national emergency shortly after.

This quickly led to shutdowns and social distancing across the country, causing concern about the health and safety of our country.

At the same time, thousands of Americans received even more troubling news — they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Maria Parmigiani was one of those people.

A shocking diagnosis

Maria felt a lump in October 2019.

She went to the doctor in December but knew she needed additional tests after her first doctor suggested she hold off on additional testing.

In February of 2020, she had a mammogram and ultrasound.

Scan showing cancer mass

“They were very quiet while they were doing an ultrasound. So, it’s almost like you know that something’s wrong,” Maria said.

In March, Maria, had a biopsy and was given the call over the phone that she was diagnosed with Stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer at the age of 33.

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“When I got my cancer diagnosis, I made jokes and that’s just kind of how I dealt with it at first. And, then it got real,” Maria said. “The first doctor I went to - she told me, if I had this cancer five years ago, it would have been a death sentence, and that completely crushed me.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t have any of the receptors that are commonly found in breast cancer so doctors have fewer keys for treatment. Fortunately, chemotherapy is still an effective option.

Maria Parmigiani was diagnosed with breast cancer during COVID-19 pandemic

Maria started chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatment in April amid a rise of coronavirus cases in the United States.

COVID-19’s impact on breast cancer

According to Dr. Kristi Funk, a board-certified breast cancer surgeon of the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills, California, the COVID-19 pandemic can affect just about every aspect of life during an individual’s breast cancer journey.

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Maria shared her struggle with the changes to her body both mentally and physically. She cited the examples of stress, gaining weight and losing her long hair.

“I feel like I’ve hit some really low points — and just the isolation, just feeling like your whole body changes,” Maria revealed. “You almost lose everything that makes you feel like a woman in a sense.”

Maria Parmigiani had a double mastectomy on Aug. 12

Stress, alcohol use and weight gain have increased during the pandemic, but Funk said they are also risk factors for breast cancer.

“A woman’s response to COVID-19 has been to escalate her risk factors for the disease: more alcohol; increased consumption of snacks, processed and comfort foods; weight gain; less exercise combined with sedentary days; elevated stress levels,” Funk said.

Funk cited financial difficulties, social isolation, uncertainty about the future and increased parenting responsibilities represent just a few of the seemingly endless COVID-19-related stressors.

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Funk recommends reducing stress by connecting with others (even if it’s virtually), making time to unwind, doing activities you enjoy, meditating daily, taking deep breaths, considering natural supplements for mood swings and joining online communities.

“With corona, you don’t feel a sense of missing out, but then it’s another level of stress. I’m so scared someone is going to get sick, because you’re so compromised,” Maria shared. “It just adds another level of being so terrified that something is going to set it up.”

Maria had a double mastectomy on August 12, and in September it was announced she was cancer-free, testing negative for BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations - indicators that an individual is at high risk for cancer.

“I have been humbled beyond belief,” Maria said. “I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought I ever was.”

The importance of screenings

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month - and an opportunity to inform individuals about the importance of getting screenings.

“Don’t wait, go,” Maria said.

Maria Parmigiani's biopsy was on March 23 and she was given a cancer diagnosis later that week.

But, according to Funk, breast cancer screenings are also down due to the COVID-19 crisis.“Out of fear, because of COVID, breast-cancer screenings compared to pre-COVID numbers is down 62% and the August stats showed a 52% drop in new breast cancer diagnosis in the U.S,” Funk said. “Breast cancer screening and detection rates are way down, but that doesn’t mean the cancers don’t exist. No, they continue their silent modus operandi of divide and multiply just the same as prior to the pandemic. Cancer doesn’t quarantine itself or shelter in place, and when it comes to your breast health, neither should you.”

“Go out there, fight for your own healthcare because you’re your best advocate,” Maria said.

You can learn more about breast cancer awareness and how to cope with it during a pandemic here.