Talking Hope: Breast cancer survivorship from a mother’s perspective

Talking Hope is brought to you by City of Hope, an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center and Orange County’s most advanced cancer care. We bring together renowned cancer experts, grateful patients and leaders in the cancer community to share vital conversations, personal journeys and unique insights into the disease that is diagnosed in one in three people during their lifetime and impacts us all.

Like most busy moms, Allie Bertocchini didn’t have time for breast cancer. Her life was full of family and work. But as someone with a family history of cancer, Bertocchini knew it was important to be vigilant about her breast health. Allie shares with us the keys to her survivorship and how being a breast cancer survivor changed her perspective on life.

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Darren Godin: Hello, I'm Darren Godin, chief of staff for City of Hope Orange County, and this is Talking Hope. Today I'm talking hope with Allie Bertocchini and our focus will be on survivorship from a mom's perspective. Welcome to the podcast, Allie.

Allie Bertocchini: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Darren Godin:We're so glad to have you. So you're a busy mom with family and a career. Tell us more about yourself and your family.

Allie Bertocchini: So I'm a mom of three boys. They're currently ages 17, 15 and 11. I'm also very involved in my community here and their schools and all of those things. And I also work for my husband, he's a financial advisor, and I work doing marketing consulting for him.

Darren Godin: Wow. So three, two teenagers and one almost teenager. That probably acts like a teenager already, right?

Allie Bertocchini: Exactly. Yes.

Darren Godin: I've got two little boys, five and nine and they're acting like that already too. So, you have to give me some tips on how to parent when they get a little bit older. Well, thanks for telling us that. So you're also a survivor with a story to tell. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your cancer journey with breast cancer?

Allie Bertocchini: Yeah, No problem. So my cancer came out of the blue. It was October of 2019. I had never been healthier, I had never felt better. And my body gave me one sign in June of 2019. I was 41 years old at the time. I'd had a clear mammogram in June of 2019. And in October, I noticed when I got out of the shower that my left nipple had gone flat. But I thought because I am a busy active mom and I'm often in sports bras and all of those sorts of things, that it was just kind of maybe from that.

But because I try to be so proactive with my health, I went and saw my primary care physician and she kind of gave me a, well, I don't feel anything but just to be safe let's do a diagnostic 
mammogram and an ultrasound. And then just by I guess fate, the next day I was able to get in and immediately I could see the technician's face and that they found something right away via the ultrasound.

And then it kind of snowballed from there. My cancer was unique from what I had expected it to be because it was never detectable by touch or by physical exam. And it was like that, it happened, my ultrasound biopsy and diagnostic mammogram happened done on Friday, and I just knew that it was cancer. And I remember that whole entire weekend just crying and being so upset and my husband was upset and we didn't know where this was going to take this and what was going to happen. All of those sorts of things. And it's like your world just gets rocked. And not only are you afraid for yourself, but as a mom, you're so worried about your kids and how this is going to affect your kids and what's going to happen.

And at the time, I had an eighth grader, sixth grader, and second-grader, and it was like the most ... It's just this feeling of everything is sort of control. You don't know why it's happening. It kind of doesn't make sense in your brain because you're like, I'm healthy, I feel fine, I don't feel ill. There's no pain. All of these things. And so I was with another provider than City of Hope initially.

And one of my good friends said, "I think just even if it's just a consult, you should really consider going to City of Hope." So my husband and I, we went up and did the consulate at the time was up at Duarte. You guys weren't open yet. And we went up there and it was like for the first time I could breathe because the moment I got there, the level of ... I was like, no matter what's coming my way, I know that there's a team here for me.

I know that my surgical oncologist was in charge of me at the time, and I knew that no matter what it was going to be, she spent so much time with me. She talked to me, she would text with me, email me whatever I needed to make sure that there's someone always there with me and supporting me.

Darren Godin: Wow. How long was that before you got to City of Hope after your diagnosis?

Allie Bertocchini: I was lucky enough that I was diagnosed on October 15th, and I believe I went for my initial consult with her at the end of October, beginning of November. And then I had a double mastectomy December 2nd, 2019.

Darren Godin: Wow. And what did the rest of your journey look like after that, after the surgery?

Allie Bertocchini: So I've learned a lot about breast cancer along the way. And one of the things that they do is when they do your biopsy, they can tell certain things about it. And depending on what certain things come back, depends on the path that you're on. So my biopsy came back that I was HER-2 negative, which meant that it was not needed necessarily to go to chemotherapy right away.

I had the option of going to surgery for either a double mastectomy or lumpectomy first. And then it was also found during my biopsy that my cancer was progesterone and estrogen positive. And being that I was 41 years old and it had been found within four months of my last mammogram, I was given the choice of a lumpectomy. But I kind of thought to myself, I know I'm young enough and strong enough, I want the double mastectomy, I just want it gone.

I want to take as much proactive care that I could for myself. And my surgeon fully supported me in that as well. So I had my double mastectomy in December. And then when they do the mastectomy, they also then spend more time studying the tumor after it's out. And they're able to give you something called an Oncotype score.

And the Oncotype score takes into account your tumor, the size of it, what other information they can find out about it, what your age is and if chemotherapy would be beneficial at this time, what your chance of recurrences and those sorts of things. So I remember that it was right before Christmas and it finally came back because I think it took about three weeks and it came back that it wasn't necessary for me to do chemotherapy at this time, which was a huge relief to me.

And then I spent the next, it took me about six weeks to recover and one day before I was out of my recovery, I noticed that my cancer side, my left side, that it was a little bit red and it was like I had this feeling where my hands and feet were really, really cold. And it was the first day my kids are back in school. It was the first day I'd driven them.

I was like, I'm back. I'm back. And all of a sudden I was like, gosh, I'm so tired. What's happening? I never had a fever. And I kind of felt weird all night and I was kind of Googling at night and everything. And then the next morning I told my husband, I'm like, "Something just doesn't feel right." And it almost felt like, I can only liken it to when you're a mom and when you're a new mom, and the feeling of when your milk comes in, which is kind of that swelling feeling, which obviously wasn't happening for me.
So I'd gone to my physical therapist that morning. She was specialized in breast cancer, and I was there for my appointment and she's like, "Well, it just looks a little bit red. Let's just look at it." And by the end of it, the redness had spread and I was rushed to emergency surgery. And I ended up with an infection. And so I dropped my kids off. I could still cry talking about this.

I dropped my kids off at school that day thinking that everything was normal and fine and I was going to be there. And then I was gone for five days while in the hospital while they studied my infection and did the infectious disease and all of that. And it came in with a PICC line, which was in my right bicep because I can't do anything on my left side, my right bicep.

And was direct a line to my heart to get medication and IVs and around the clock for I think it was four and a half weeks. And it just mentally was so tough. Again, I always ended up kind of on the top of the worst list. I had cancer, but it was caught early. And then I did this, but it was cut early. I got an infection, but it was cut early. All these things that I was like, the finish line just kept moving for me.

And so then I spent another six weeks recovering again because I had surgery and then the IV. And then finally in March of 2020, I was like, okay, great, here we go. I could go back to myself. And then the world shut down because it was Covid. So then it was another mental, I was like, you've got to be kidding me. I just couldn't get away from it all.

But the end, and during this time I also, I had been passed from my surgical oncologist to my medical oncologist, Dr. Wade Smith, who's in the Newport Beach location. And I was under their care and given a medication that I'd be on for 10 years called Tamoxifen, which is an estrogen blocker and helps my body not feed off of estrogen to create any more cancer.

So I was doing that. And then it was determined that radiation was not necessary at that time either. And in October of 2020, I had my final reconstructive surgery and it was about, so it was almost a year to the day that the whole experience was.

Darren Godin: How are you doing today?

Allie Bertocchini: I'm doing great today. I mean, it's still there mentally. I tell people that cancer happens and you're ready for the fight. And you go through it and you go through it and go through it and you're like, just try to get to the finish line. The finish line keeps moving sometimes, but try to get to the finish line, try to get to the finish line.

And then once you get to the finish line, then I think you actually grieve what happens to you because there's like, it doesn't seem fair. You're kind of mad. You're like, you're so sad. You're like, you're never going to be the same person again. All of those sorts of things. And I'm lucky with the support of my family and friends and all of that, that they helped me through that. But I'm coming up on four years this October, and I can say that I'm doing great. I can do almost every physical activity I could do before. And life feels somewhat normal around here again.

Darren Godin: Awesome, awesome. Well, this idea of survivorship is really focusing on your health and your wellbeing and the other toll that a cancer journey takes on you, whether that's physical or mental, emotional, social, financial. Can you talk a little bit about some of those impacts that your journey had on you?

Allie Bertocchini: Yeah. I think that, like I mentioned before, there's just so much fear and so much unknown. And being someone that's a mom and running a household and running your family, you're pretty used to being able to figure out the logistics and all these things and everything is thrown up in the air. I can tell you that my kids were way more resilient than I could have ever imagined.

My oldest, the one who's now 17, he was in eighth grade at the time, there was times when I had those around the clock IVs and they were slow released, my husband couldn't be there and it was my dominant arm, so I couldn't do it, he actually helped me and administered those to me, which was incredible. And now here is a junior in high school and he's looking to go into the medical field, which I think is amazing.

And my kids were everything to me. My husband was so supportive and he used to be the one who, when if anyone needed stitches, he wasn't going because he didn't like blood and all of those things. But he became the best nurse, took care of me so much, helped me with drains and wound care and all of those sorts of things.

I think that he also afforded me the luxury of time to let me work through a lot of it. One of the things that when you're given a diagnosis is everybody kind of comes out of the woodwork and they're reaching out to you. And some people are telling you really scary things and you're like, I don't need to know that. It's like, oh, I know someone this happened to. And you're like, please don't tell me. But one of my friends up in Northern California, she's like, "I have this friend who I work out with, and she's just a couple of weeks ahead of you.

Would you like to talk to her?" And I was like, "Yes." And I was so thankful to talk to someone who wasn't in my inner circle who I could ask all the questions to and who could also tell me what to expect or things that I should consider asking my doctor about or prepare myself for. And she was wonderful. And I remember I was like, "Thank you so much. This is unbelievable." And she's like, "Don't worry, you're going to do it for someone else."

And since I've been diagnosed, I guess, and then come to the end of my own treatment, I've talked to friends and friends of friends and people from back in my past from high school and all these different areas, and there's so many women that I've talked to and helped them through theirs and giving them suggestions too, and answer questions and try to help them navigate certain things or things that they should think about.

And every single one of them is like, what can I do? Thank you so much. And I'm like, just please do it for someone else. And so I think it's created this amazing sense of community. It's like one of those clubs you never want to be a part of, but when you're in it and you find the right people, it's amazing what kind of community and what kind of help we can all give each other.

Darren Godin: That's great. And some sense of responsibility to others as well to really help them through.

Allie Bertocchini: Well, yeah. I mean, when it happened to me, and it was like I said, so out of the blue, I happened to be incredibly involved in my boys' school at the time I was president of the PTO and people heard how crazy my story was because it was a little bit public because I had to step back from some stuff.
And there were seven other women that year that went to the doctor because of my story that were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Darren Godin: Wow. You saved some lives.

Allie Bertocchini: I mean, I guess if that was my role in it, that they were supposed to then go take care of their own health, that's amazing. But it was just one of those things where I was like, this is just everywhere. It's not going away. And I think being so proactive and so on top of it has helped breast cancer so much.

Darren Godin: Wow. What does hope mean to you? And what personally gives you reason for hope?

Allie Bertocchini: I think for me hope is something that when you're at your darkest of your dark and you're scared and you're so nervous and all of those things, it's something to hold onto. I'm also a person of faith, so I hold onto that as well. And I feel like they go pretty hand in hand, hope and faith together. And I think that it's something that you just don't know how much you need it to keep yourself positive and to go forward and all of those things until you really need it.

Darren Godin: Thank you for sharing that. Couple rapid fire questions for you. Going back to the beginning, you said something, you said, I was young enough and strong enough, I knew I could go forward. What made you know that?

Allie Bertocchini: Well, I kind of know I didn't have a choice, right because I had these three boys that I know that they needed me. And I also, I mean, I was a little bit mad. I was like, I can't believe this happened to me. I'm like, I'm going to fight this. I'm going to beat this. And I think that I was just like, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do this. I know I can do this.

The day right up until my surgery, I could run five miles or I was an athlete. I loved to work out. I loved to be active. I loved to hike and bike and ski and play tennis and all these things. And I physically always felt so strong. So I think that I felt like maybe leading up to what was going to happen to me at this point in my life, I had spent so much time working on exercise and keeping myself physically healthy.

Darren Godin: Gotcha. Gotcha. Also, we know that breast cancer doesn't just affect moms, but today we're talking with you, a mom. You sound like a great mom by the way. And as a mom who's been on this journey. So what is your message to maybe some of the other mamas that are listening right now?

Allie Bertocchini: I would say that I know throughout so many different phases of being a mom, life is so busy that sometimes you put yourself on the back burner. And I think not only if you ever notice any little tiny thing that looks different or seems just a little bit strange in your body that you didn't notice before, do go have it checked out. Even if you're told it's nothing, it's fine because you never know what's going to happen. And if you could be saving your life, or saving yourself from a worst diagnosis down the way.

I also think it's really important, and I learned a lot because I was always so on the go that you have to give yourself time as a mom for no matter what you're going through to actually take time for yourself and actually work through emotionally what might be going on in your life at that time.

Darren Godin: Thank you for sharing that. My wife's an incredible mom, I think. But I do see where she gets so busy taking care of the kids and the family that she probably doesn't take enough time for herself. And I think it's a great message that people need to hear that if you ever think you have something, stop, pause, and do what you've got to do to make totally sure everything's okay, because you just never know, right?

Allie Bertocchini: Right.

Darren Godin: Yeah, that's great. Allie, before we close here, I just want to ask you one more question. What did you learn about Allie the most throughout this entire journey?

Allie Bertocchini: I think that I had always been the kind of person that could just always get things done. I'm like, I've got it. I can do this no matter what. I'm a problem solver. I'm a logistics person. I'm like, you tell me something, I'm like, I'll figure this out. No problem, no problem. And I think that one of the hardest things was actually accepting help from other people and letting other people do things for me.

I mean, I had an amazing amount of support from my kids' school and from friends and family. I had one mom, one of my good friends who for six weeks, and then when I was back in the hospital and it happened again, so for 12 weeks she's like, "I'm just going to make lunch for all three of your boys every single day for school." And I'm like, "No, no, no. I'll just order."

She's like, "No, I'm going to do this." And that was like, there's so many things, or people bringing dinner or driving my kids or all of these things? And it was accepting and allowing others in to actually help you, is a hard thing to let go of. And I talk about that a lot when people are first diagnosed, they're like, no, I got it. I'm like, "But you don't have to. You're actually able to do it for others."

And we all know when you are helping someone and you're on the other end of giving the help, not receiving the help, how good it feels. And I think letting go of that and letting that into our lives was wonderful for all of us, for all five of us. And I also think letting my kids actually show me how resilient and how independent they could be at the ages when I was still doing everything for them or as much as I could, has made them stronger as well.

Darren Godin: All right. Well, thank you so much, Allie. We really appreciate you sharing your story with us today and encouraging others and giving hope to others. We love that you're advocating for others and getting them out there and getting them aware of what they should be doing. So thank you so much for sharing today and thanks for talking hope with us. Thank you all for listening. I hope you'll join us again soon. I'm Darren Godin and this is Talking Hope.