Chicagoland resident Maria Westphal was taking a swim on a sunny Tuesday afternoon when she first noticed something didn’t feel right between her breast and armpit.
“If I hadn’t gone in the pool that day, I wouldn’t have noticed it,” says Maria. “I kept moving my arm and wondering if something was really there. Because when I was just doing normal stuff I didn’t notice it at all.”
Even though she was unsure about what she was feeling, Maria decided to make an appointment with her doctor to get it checked out. Her doctor recommended getting a biopsy and soon after found out she had breast cancer.
“My first thought was this can’t be happening,” says Maria. “My mom was at my house and as soon as I told her she started crying. I lost my dad to colon cancer so we understood how serious it was to get this diagnosis. But I vowed to stay strong after seeing how upset my mom was and knowing I have to be around to care for my husband and four kids.”
One in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Treating the cancer before it progresses can help ensure a better outcome. Maria ended up seeking care at Edward-Elmhurst Health, and, with the help of her care team, decided a double mastectomy was the best treatment option.
“Maria was an excellent patient,” says Dr. Amaryllis Gil, Associate Medical Director of Hematology/Oncology with Edward-Elmhurst Health. “She always called when she had questions or wasn’t sure about something. She wanted to understand what was happening and that helped her feel confident about her treatment.”
“My care team explained my options and I decided I didn’t want to risk having the cancer come back,” says Maria. “They asked if I wanted to wait to do the surgery after the holidays but I said no way – I wanted the cancer out as soon as possible. I knew in my heart this was the right decision.”
Next up was chemotherapy. Once again, Maria’s care team asked if she wanted to wait to start until after the holidays. Once again she told them no. So Maria began chemotherapy, which would last 24 weeks. It was followed by 33 sessions of radiation therapy.
“Throughout treatment, we were in constant contact,” says Dr. Gil. “A lot of patients wonder what’s next but Maria really took charge of her health throughout the process.”
That’s not to say there weren’t challenges along the way. During chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Maria experienced bouts of insomnia and exhaustion and eventually her curly hair fell out. But even on the worst days, she focused on the good instead of the bad.
“I wanted things to stay as normal as possible and not have people take pity on me,” Maria says. “One thing that really helped was getting a good wig. The one I got was made to look exactly like my actual hair – complete with highlights. When I wore it, no one could tell it wasn’t my natural hair. So unless a person knew, they wouldn’t be able to guess I had cancer.”
After Maria completed chemotherapy and radiation therapy, her family celebrated with a two week trip to Florida and spent the holidays on the beach. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip and a much-needed break.
“We didn’t have a traditional Christmas dinner, but it was the best vacation,” Maria says. “We took our time and did the things we wanted to do. One of the things cancer taught me is to slow down and focus on what’s important. These days, I don’t sweat the small stuff like having a few dirty dishes in the sink. It’s changed the way I look at life.”
Maria says the best advice she can offer to others is to refuse to let the cancer take them down. Think positive and good things will follow.
“Just remember, you got this,” she says. “Stay positive and believe you’ll get through it. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and you will feel good again.”