Actively living with metastatic breast cancer: Aliza Feldman
If you ask Aliza Feldman what she’d say to someone newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she’ll answer, “Don’t focus on the diagnosis.” As a woman living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) herself, Aliza admits, “It’s really hard not to. But,” she says, “I always try to put the diagnosis in the back of my mind.”
In the summer of 2020, shortly before her scheduled routine screening mammogram, Aliza, then 46-years-old, discovered a change in her right breast: an inverted nipple with a lump underneath. Her gynecologist ordered a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. The biopsy detected stage IIA invasive ductal carcinoma.
Aliza and her health care team (a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and surgeon) decided on a mastectomy as the first step in their course of action. They expected Aliza, a high school math teacher, to be back to work after six weeks of recovery. However, during surgery, cancer was found in Aliza’s lymph nodes, and her diagnosis was changed to stage IIIC. Her doctor ordered a PET scan, and biopsies revealed that cancer had spread to her bones, changing her diagnosis to stage IV or MBC. Aliza needed to undergo radiation therapy.
At that point, since her high school was operating on a hybrid in-person/virtual manner during the 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Aliza decided to take the year off. “If I were going into a normal school year, I probably would have gone back,” but it would’ve been too hard “trying to catch up with everything” happening that year.
She returned to her classroom in the fall of 2021, but after getting sick in January 2022, and missing several days of work, Aliza made the difficult decision to retire.
While she loved teaching, Aliza says retirement has been “fabulous.” She appreciates having the flexibility to take care of herself—to schedule treatments and tests—without the responsibility of prepping a substitute and her students for her absences. “I was never one to miss work,” she explains. “I was always there.”
“I do miss my colleagues and my students,” says Aliza. “I miss the smiles when they understand what they’re learning.”
Meanwhile, Aliza’s loved ones tease her—that she’s busier now than she was before she retired. She volunteers for several organizations, including Sam’s Hope, delivering pet food and supplies to those facing economic and health challenges. She also delivers food to people who are food insecure through Jewish Relief Agency and Ben Wilson Senior Activity Center’s Meals on Wheels program. Aliza also provides companionship for a woman who receives hospice services and has substituted at a local preschool. She is the youth chairperson at her synagogue.
“I also read, and some days, I just do nothing!”
But, “being active,” says Aliza, “is definitely key.” She and her husband, who live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, try to walk outside daily. “After my diagnosis, I sat on the sofa for two months and just cried every day. Then I finally got off my butt, and I felt better once I started doing stuff.”
Making memories and loving her pets
Aliza feels grateful for her family’s support and thinks of herself as a family person: “spending time with my family is very important to me,” shares the mother of a daughter in high school and one in college. “I want to make sure my daughters know me and have memories with me to share with their children who I probably will never meet. I do anything I can to make memories with them,” she says, including traveling with her daughters, as well as her brother.
The Feldman family has three dogs. “After my surgeries, one of my dogs stayed by my side when I slept in our recliner. I have one who waits for me to open the door when I take a nap so she can come into my room. Even though I have my family, having a dog or a cat makes such a huge difference—petting them and holding them.” She offers, “if you’ve been diagnosed with MBC, and you’re an animal lover and you don’t have a pet, definitely get one.”
Support and community
Seeking out other people who share the experience of living with MBC was also vital to Aliza. “I’ve thought about going to therapy, but I’d rather talk to someone in my situation than talk to someone who has no idea what’s going through my head.” She found a Facebook group for people with MBC. “These women are my therapists; they have been absolutely fantastic.” Her MBC group led her to LBBC and to participate in Thriving Together: 2023 Conference on Metastatic Breast Cancer earlier this year. Joining a group for people living with MBC “has been a lifesaver, without a doubt,” she says. “When you’re down, they pick you up; and when they’re down, you pick them up. It’s incredibly helpful.”
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