In 2011, Dani Ghezzi was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer
. She was just 31, and an oncologist told her she had 10 years to live.
“That’s absolutely not OK for you to say,” she told the doctor. “I’m not a carton of milk — I don’t have an expiration date.”
It’s that attitude, as much as any treatment, that has kept her not just alive, but vibrant. Talk to her and you’ll find yourself energized by her high spirits and good humor — like her T-shirt with these words emblazoned across her chest: “Hell, yes, they’re fake. The real ones tried to kill me.”
That’s not to say her cancer journey has been a cakewalk. It has, in fact, been a perfect storm of worst-case scenarios. It’s a story to take inspiration from — but one that begins as cautionary tale for early detection.
A DANGEROUS CANCER MYTH
Before her diagnosis, Ghezzi had been a nursery school teacher with two part-time jobs, which meant she didn’t qualify for health insurance. So when she discovered a small, somewhat painful lump in her breast, the expense of getting it checked out didn’t seem worthwhile — especially because she’d believed a common myth.
“I’d always heard that if you have a lump and it hurts, it’s not cancer,” she said. “That’s completely false. If you feel a lump, go to the doctor, no matter what.”
Ghezzi learned that lesson the hard way. By the time she went for medical help, the cancer had spread to her heart, lungs, mediastinum and clavicle.
In the wake of such a devastating diagnosis, she sought a second opinion.
“I was lucky enough to be seen by Dr. Benjamin Paz
at City of Hope. He was wonderful, and I knew that was the place for me,” she said. “It was a very easy decision to make."
THEN THE CHALLENGES KEPT PILING ON
Her own health crisis wasn’t the only ordeal she had to face.
About a year after she was diagnosed, her father learned he had esophageal
and stomach cancer
. Though still undergoing treatment herself, she shared caregiving responsibilities with her mother until he died in 2015.
Then, a few months after she lost her dad, her mother became ill with ovarian
and peritoneal cancer. Ghezzi is now her sole caregiver.
As for her own battle with cancer, despite multiple surgeries and medications, Ghezzi has been in remission only once.
“The cancer seemed to go on its own little journey. It would get better and then it would start growing. It kind of had a mind of its own,” she said.
Finally, she was enrolled in a City of Hope clinical trial and after a year her scans came back "NED," no evidence of disease.
To ensure she remained in remission, she needed to stay on the medication — but her insurance company decided to stop paying for it. There was no way she could afford the cost of her two shots a month, about $18,000.
“It took time to clear up the insurance issue, and I went without my injections for three months,” she said. “By then, the cancer had come back with such a vengeance, I couldn’t go back on the drug.”
She has just completed a round of radiation treatment and will know in January how well it worked.
SUCCESS ISN’T ALWAYS MEASURED BY A CURE
Through all of the physical and emotional challenges life has thrown at her, Ghezzi has managed to stay strong and keep a positive attitude. She’s learned to reach out for help when she needs it and to find time to disconnect from the pressures of being both patient and caregiver.
"I know the roller coaster that the cancer world is, and whatever is happening, I’ve learned to own it and get through it, so it doesn’t swallow me up,” she said. “I have moments where I just need to scream into a pillow. And I do.”
Yet she’s grateful for her cancer journey. It’s given her a keener appreciation for the little things in life — the sun shining on her face, a drive in beautiful weather, the company of friends, a night out for dinner.
In fact, though she still has cancer, she feels she’s a success story.
“When I think about all the things I’ve been through,” she said, “I realize, 'Oh yeah, I made it out alive. I'm good.'”
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