On November 29th, The Breast Cancer Society of Canada will partner with the Giving Tuesday Canada initiative to encourage Canadians across the country to fund life-saving breast cancer research.
Alyssa Vito is a breast cancer survivor, whose journey led her to cancer research. Alyssa’s story inspires the kind of work the Breast Cancer Society is funding. We hope you will also find inspiration in her story and take part in Giving Tuesday on November 29th, by giving to help those in need!
Six-time Ironman World champion Mark Allen once said, “Until you face your fears, you don’t move to the other side, where you find the power.” As someone who has been an athlete my entire life, I relate deeply to this quote. Overcoming fear is a crucial step to any athletic success. But athleticism aside, the cancer survivor inside me relates to this even deeper. Because there can be nothing scarier to an athlete than your body being devoured by cancer. And it’s only when you step up and face that fear head on that you can move to the other side and find a power so strong you never even knew it existed.
After finishing my B.Sc. and moving back to Toronto I was in top physical form. I had just finished rowing four years on a division one rowing team in the USA and was in the best shape of my life. I ran. I cycled. I worked out every day. Twice a day. I felt invincible. But one night when I was going to bed, I found a lump in my breast. And no matter how many people told me that I was “too young to have breast cancer”, on July 23rd, 2011, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in the right breast.
With no family history and essentially no risk factors, it was a shocking diagnosis to anyone and everyone who heard it. But family history and risk factors aside, what was even more shocking was how healthy I was. I looked like someone capable of running a marathon… and I was.
I was twenty-three years old, working in the medical field and aspiring to become an oncologist. I had been a competitive athlete my entire life and lived as healthy and active as I could. I spent years volunteering in the cancer centre at Credit Valley Hospital and imagined one day transitioning from volunteer to doctor, but never considered the possibility that I could wind up a patient there myself.
Pathology showed that my tumour was stage two, triple negative and as such I was given an aggressive treatment regimen. I underwent surgery, chemo and radiation therapy and have now been in remission for four years and eight months.
After finishing treatment, I decided to go back to school and work in the field of cancer research. I wanted to see firsthand what was being done to prevent what I had gone through, from happening to someone else like me. I went to McMaster University and did my M.Sc. degree in chemical biology. My thesis sought to develop and evaluate molecular imaging probes for breast cancer detection. While I cannot say that I developed anything in my time there that is actually being used in the clinic today, I can say that we have made progress. We are making progress. One small step at a time.
This year I returned to McMaster to pursue my PhD, again in the field of cancer research. My PhD thesis is focused on an exciting new field, exploring immunotherapies for breast cancer treatment. These immunotherapies offer a way to use a patient’s own immune system to kill the malignant cells within them.
The field of oncology research is ever evolving. Ever changing. Ever growing. And it is no easy feat. As someone who works in this field, I can tell you that for every 100 experiments and hypotheses done in the lab, maybe 10 work. It is a constant battle to tackle such a devastating disease and work towards some way of better detecting it, fighting it, treating it.
Breast cancer mortality rates have decreased by 44% since the peak in 1986. This decrease is directly linked to research efforts like those I just mentioned. And even with that vast decrease, we still have a long way to go. This is precisely why organizations like the Breast Cancer Society of Canada and days like Giving Tuesday are so incredibly important. Though you may have heard it over and over again, I want to tell you that every dollar counts. Research works. I am living proof of this. But… research is expensive. The process of taking an idea, curating it, funding it and taking it from bench-to-bedside is no cheap or easy feat. No matter what your reason is for being connected to the cancer community, you need to remember that every dollar you donate puts us one step closer to a life in which no person fears cancer.
I never thought I would get into research. I never thought I would get breast cancer. Often in life, things happen that we weren’t expecting. It disrupts our daily flow and throws a fork into the straight road we thought we were traveling. But at the end of the day, it’s these divergent paths that guide us to new, typically better outcomes. It is these disruptions that carve out our lives. Our stories. It is these exact disruptions that have made me a wife, a mother, a survivor, a researcher and an overall better person… and I wouldn’t change one inch of it given the chance.
Your donation to The Breast Cancer Society of Canada will help fund breast cancer research. Give today and help save lives.