Rose Parade 2018: Breast Cancer Patient Takes Charge of Her Health by Referring Herself to City of Hope
November 27, 2017 | by City of Hope
Here, we meet float rider Nicole Allen.
When Nicole Allen takes her spot on City of Hope’s Rose Parade float on Jan. 1, she will be seeing the parade for the first time. Getting diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40, however, did not feel like a “first” to her — her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, uncle and cousin had all died of various forms of cancer.
“I always expected to get cancer. It was a matter of when,” she said. “I guess I didn’t expect it at 40. And I thought I would die of cancer, and that didn’t happen.”
Allen, a mother of three girls, was determined to be her family’s first cancer survivor.
The Victorville, California, resident referred herself to City of Hope in 2013 after her local doctor brushed off her concerns over pain and swelling in her breast. (She was told that breast cancer doesn’t hurt and that she should try a warm compress.)
The single mom traveled weekly from Victorville for her treatment, battled severe depression with the help of her City of Hope social workers and psychiatrist, and is now an advocate for herself and others as a member of City of Hope’s Patient and Family Advisory Council.
After pushing her local doctor for a mammogram after feeling a “huge lump” in her breast, Allen discovered she had a seven-centimeter tumor. “They referred me to an oncologist, who never called me back. So, I called City of Hope,” she recalled. “They told me everything they needed, and they gave me an appointment two days away. I saw Dr. [George] Somlo, and he had a plan and more tests than I’ve ever heard of. From there everything went pretty quick.”
Allen was diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2-positive breast cancer. “Dr. Somlo said I had a very aggressive form of cancer, but he told me, ‘It’s going to be a long, hard road for you, but I believe I can save your life.’ And he did.”
Allen first had four months of chemotherapy, once a week for six hours, to shrink her tumor. Medical oncologist George Somlo, M.D., recommended a mastectomy, but Allen pushed for a lumpectomy. Somlo acceded to her request, but was unable to get clear margins, so the following month she had the mastectomy she had been dreading. She then had seven weeks of daily radiation treatments. A year later, she started the breast reconstruction process. She finished her last surgery a month ago. “I can now put this part of my life behind me,” she said.
“They say my prognosis looks really good,” she added. “It’s not genetic or anything like that. I’ll have to get checks and mammograms for the rest of my life. I have wonderful doctors and I love City of Hope. I’m there all the time. I feel blessed. Not everyone else gets to get where I’m at. No one in my family did.”
Her cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery triggered the depression Allen has suffered from on and off since the age of 17. Two social workers and a psychiatrist at City of Hope's Department of Supportive Care Medicine got her through her “meltdowns.”
“They’ve been awesome,” she said. “My psychiatrist was more than a psychiatrist. She helped me through all the hard times — the tears, the times I wanted to give up. The psychiatrist would return my calls personally, not a nurse. I felt cared about.”
Allen found her mastectomy particularly emotionally challenging. “Losing a part of my body, my self-image as a woman — it was really hard for me to come to terms with that and to accept that it needed to happen,” she said. “I was in denial until I couldn’t be in denial anymore. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in my breasts. They made me feel like a woman, like a mother. It was part of my identity. It was devastating. Now that I’ve gone through the reconstruction I actually can look in the mirror, and I feel a lot better about myself.”
About a year after her treatment, Allen began volunteering for City of Hope’s Patient and Advisory Council. “I like having input on things happening at City of Hope and having the opportunity to make things better for patients coming after me. Cancer patients know the little things that can make treatment and recovery easier.”
Having been through it herself, Allen urges other women facing breast cancer to hang in there.
“It gets better,” she said. “It seems overwhelming in the beginning, but there is hope, and there are a lot of options out there for you. Know that there is life after breast cancer. When you go in for treatment it consumes everything, your whole life.”
For those worried something is wrong with their health, Allen said, “If you feel like there’s something wrong with your body, keep pressing. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. Never give up. There are so many resources out there that I wasn’t aware of at the time. There’s a whole team at City of Hope to help you.”
Learn more about our breast cancer program. If you are looking for a second opinion about your diagnosis or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-4673. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.
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