It was 1999, and Lisa Sanchez Dittmer, of Ladera Ranch, California, was considering life’s many possibilities. At 37, she contemplated leaving her career as a retail store manager and returning to school. She felt ready for a long-term partner and children.
The one possibility that did not cross her mind was cancer—until she found a lump in her breast and learned over the phone that she had infiltrating ductal carcinoma, a stage I invasive cancer in which the cancer cells travel outside of the breast ducts into the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes.
"I was young and still had many plans for my life and future. I thought it was something that would happen to my grandmother," she says.
Making Treatment Decisions
Lisa talked with her doctor about her treatment plan and got second and third opinions from teams at other hospitals. Each team suggested a slightly different plan.
"I wasn’t married, and my family was far away. I had to make these huge life-changing decisions by myself," she says. "It was so confusing."
Because hormonal therapy could postpone childbearing for several years and infertility can be a side effect of chemotherapy, Lisa’s treatment choices weighed heavily on her dreams for the future.
"My sister came with me to an appointment and asked about my fertility and my options. The doctor interrupted and said, ‘I know you are concerned about fertility, but we are concerned with saving your life.’" Lisa says. "What could I say to that? It crushed almost all of my hope for children in the future."
Lisa was entitled to ask those questions, but without an advocate to help her understand her rights and the treatment options that could protect her fertility, she moved forward. She decided on a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. During treatments she experienced challenges to her body image and self-esteem.
"The fact that my hair fell out was unbearable," she says. "I went into hiding for awhile, but then I started wearing different styles of colored wigs and having fun with it."
As Lisa dealt with the side effects of treatment, she struggled to find support. Her boyfriend, Ken, reassured her and came to a couple of treatments, but her family was uncomfortable talking about the cancer—especially her father.
"In Hispanic culture, [health issues] aren’t really talked about in detail," she says. "It’s like if we pretend everything is okay, maybe we won’t have to feel the pain.
"I would be at my family’s house, and I would look and feel ugly, and no one would say a word. They just kind of ignored the reality of some of the grave possibilities. But at the time of crisis, you need some comfort and emotional support from family."
To connect with others who could understand what she was going through, Lisa began volunteering for her local Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliate. Soon after, she attended C4YW, the Annual Conference for Young Women hosted by Living Beyond Breast Cancer and Young Survival Coalition.
"I finally met other young women who had gone and were going through breast cancer treatment. We talked about how we found the cancer, our treatments and the lack of support for young women, and we just really had fun," she says.
Learning that she was not alone helped Lisa move forward. A year after her treatment ended, she and her boyfriend got engaged; the next year, they married.
Fertility After Treatment
Lisa’s doctor told her that because of her age, and because chemotherapy may have caused her to begin menopause early, she might not be able to conceive.
Tests suggested Lisa was still fertile, but after two years, she had not become pregnant. She decided to see a fertility specialist. The doctor confirmed Lisa was in early menopause and had only a 3 percent chance of becoming pregnant.
"I was questioning my faith [because I wasn’t able to have a baby], so I talked to my priest," Lisa says. "He said, ‘Just because one door hasn’t opened, doesn’t mean you can’t walk through another one.’ That’s when we started looking into adoption. We thought maybe God had a different plan for us."
After completing the year-long adoption process but before adopting a child, Lisa and her husband learned they would be biological parents—Lisa was pregnant!
"It was a miracle," she says. "At the beginning, the doctors gave me all the negative statistics, but I had to focus on being positive."
A healthy baby boy, Jacob, was born on September 18, 2005. Lisa and Ken assumed they would not be able to have more children. But at age 47, Lisa gave birth to another baby boy, Luke Michael.
Lisa feels blessed. Looking back, she wishes her doctors had taken time before her treatment to find out what was important to her. She hopes other women will hear her story and be empowered to work with their doctors to address important quality-of-life issues like fertility and their hopes for the future.
When it comes to the challenges of getting support from a family with conservative beliefs about cancer, she says, "you can only take one day at time, so learn to be gentle on yourself and just focus on getting better.
"Having breast cancer helped me to see things in a new light," Lisa says. "I would never change my diagnosis. My choices are better, and I think I am a better person than I was before. In my relationship, we are able to be honest about things, and that has made a difference."
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