Three months earlier, she might have ignored the lump on her chest and put off going to the doctor.
Danielle Derrico was only 27, just starting a new job and preparing to take the exam to be a certified public accountant.
Breast cancer was the furthest thing from her mind — except her mom had just been diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma.
So, she made an appointment and went in for testing.
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Her mother, Debbie Derrico, already was undergoing radiation treatment after removal of an 8 mm lump.
And her outlook was nothing but positive.
They had caught the cancer early, and doctors told her that her prognosis was good.
Then her daughter called. She had the same diagnosis, but her cancer was bigger — about 4 cm — and her diagnosis was Stage 2.
“I couldn’t believe she had it. She’s too young. Why her?” Debbie Derrico said.
“I thought I was getting out so easy, I was so positive. And then her. It was harder. I never broke down about me, but I did for her.”
Now, more than two years later, she views the experience a little differently.
If she hadn’t had cancer, her daughter likely wouldn’t have rushed to see a doctor about the lump she found on her chest. Doctors estimated Danielle Derrico’s cancer had been growing for two years, and if they had waited longer to treat it, she easily could have been Stage 3 or 4, Danielle Derrico said.
“That may be why I had cancer, was to save my daughter,” Debbie Derrico said.
For Danielle, knowing her mother had already started treatment for the exact same type of cancer was a huge comfort.
Her mother went with her to her first appointment and translated all the medical terms the doctors were telling her.
“It kept me calm. I knew it was what she had, and I knew she was fine,” Danielle Derrico said.
Because both mother and daughter had the same cancer, their doctors recommended they do genetic testing. At the time, Danielle’s sister was pregnant, and they wanted to be sure she wasn’t at risk too. The test was negative for the genetic marker that makes women more prone to cancer.
Going through cancer together has made the mother and daughter even closer, they said.
Since their diagnosis, treatment and recovery, the two have walked or run in the Komen Race for the Cure, raised money for cancer research, participated in the Project Pink Fashion Show and graced the cover of the calendar for the Pink Ribbon Connection.
Debbie Derrico credits her daughter with bringing her out of her shell.
“She’s quiet. I like to be the center of attention,” Danielle Derrico said.
One of their goals is to spread awareness that cancer can hit anyone — even women in their 20s.
For Danielle Derrico, the diagnosis came at what was already a busy, stressful time in her life.When she found the lump on her chest wall, she had just started a new job at a small accounting firm and was working at least 50 hours a week. Tax season would soon be starting. And she was preparing to take the exam to be a certified public accountant.At first, she did some Internet searching and didn’t find anything too concerning. But her boyfriend was worried, especially since her mom had just recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, so she made an appointment. Because of her mother’s history, she didn’t just get a mammogram, they also did an ultrasound. And then they wanted to do a biopsy, which she had to schedule around her last exam to become a CPA.
She didn’t tell anyone until the doctors were doing a biopsy, not even her mom, because she didn’t want them to worry about what was probably nothing. Her mom had done the same, not telling anyone until after she met with the surgeon and could tell them the plan and the positive news that they had caught the cancer early.
When Danielle Derrico got the results, she was at work, with a client. She fought back tears as the doctor’s office told her they had found cancer cells.
Then, she called her mother; and the next day, she met with a surgeon.
She tried to model her reaction and attitude after her mother, who had handled cancer with such grace, Danielle Derrico said.
But she was mad and scared. She cried when her mother was diagnosed. When she found out everything she would need to go through for her own treatment — 8 rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and 33 rounds of radiation — she bawled.
She also struggled with all the decisions she was being asked to make about her treatment.
“It was so hard. I am terrible at making decisions, and they wanted me to decide,” she said.
‘I was really angry’
Both she and her mother decided to get a lumpectomy to remove the cancer. The surgery had fewer complication risks than a mastectomy, and since the cancer wasn’t genetic, they weren’t at an increased risk of it returning.The surgery was a concern for her, since she had been working at her job for only two months, and she hadn’t earned any time off yet. But her office gave her a week off work, and that was all she needed, she said. And luckily, she had started getting insurance benefits already — about a month before her diagnosis.From what her mom had gone through, she knew she would wake up with an uncomfortable set of tubes attached to her body to help drain the fluids after surgery. But she got used to it, pinning the drain to her clothing at work, she said.
Next came the chemo.
“At the beginning, I was really angry I had to do chemo,” Danielle Derrico said.
Luckily, chemo didn’t hit her as hard as other patients. She didn’t get sick, and though she didn’t feel great, her side effects were more manageable — itchy skin, cloudy vision. Until her hair fell out; that was the hardest part, she said.
As her 16 weeks of chemo treatment went on — every other week — she began seeing her sessions as a time for her to relax and take care of herself. She was working long hours during tax season, so chemotherapy gave her time to rest and not worry about work, she said.
Finally, she went through 33 rounds of radiation, which were quick and easy, especially compared to chemotherapy.
Now, both Danielle and Debbie Derrico are in the middle of taking five years of medication that is meant to keep the cancer from coming back.
Finding pink sisters
For Danielle Derrico, who is now 29, that also means she has to put off having kids for a little while until she is done with the medication at age 33. But she is OK with that, since that isn’t a decision she was ready to make yet anyway.She also has to go for mammograms every six months. But she was recently cleared by her radiation oncologist — almost like nothing had ever happened.But while cancer has not changed who they are, it has become a new, important cause to both of them — especially Danielle Derrico.
After she was diagnosed, she told few people she had cancer. But as she was going through treatment, she began seeing photos and posts on social media of other women her age with cancer. They talked about their treatments and symptoms, and they talked about their hair and how fast it grows back after chemo.
Halfway through her chemo treatment, Danielle Derrico decided to post on Facebook about her treatment. The response was huge, with so much support from people she knew and others she didn’t know reaching out to connect.
“I got so much support. People said I inspire them. I didn’t expect that reaction,” she said.
She still has women her age who find her on social media to ask questions and seek support, and that is her favorite part. She has her pink sisters, women from all over the country she hopes to meet someday.
Her goal is to continue to offer that support to other women and spread the word that women can be diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
“Breast cancer was the farthest thing from my mind, but it does happen to women in their 20s,” Danielle Derrico said. “I keep finding more, and I want people to know.”
Name: Debbie Derrico
Type of cancer: Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma
When diagnosed: July 2013
Treatment: Lumpectomy, 25 rounds of radiation, oral medication for 5 years
How cancer changed me: It really didn’t, because I was so positive. This was a blip in my life, I had a plan, and I would go on. It does make you aware that your body can betray you.
What cancer taught me: You can get through it. As long as you’ve got a plan and a goal, you can get through anything.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed: Your doctors have a good plan, so follow it. And don’t be afraid to tell others you have it. The overwhelming support helps you not feel alone.
Name: Danielle Derrico
Diagnosis: Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma
When diagnosed: November 2013
Treatment: Lumpectomy, 8 rounds of chemotherapy, 33 rounds of radiation
How cancer changed me: Obviously I appreciate life more, but I still feel like the same person. I do what I did before. I’m in my 20s, and I act like it.
What cancer taught me: I’m pretty strong. My oncologist called me superhuman because I wasn’t really affected by chemo. I worried it wasn’t working. But I got through it.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed: It’s going to be OK. I am sure you don’t want to hear that, and there are a lot of emotions. But it will be OK.