Breast Cancer Saved My Life
During a routine breast self exam in the shower, Lisa Bonanni, 54, found the pea-sized lump that would save her life. She saw her doctor, where she received not one, but two shocking diagnoses. Not only did she have stage 2 breast cancer, but she also learned she was a walking time bomb due to a 6.5 cm thoracic aortic aneurysm, ready to rupture at any moment.
After a grueling eight-hour surgery to remove the aneurism and repair the aorta, she received the good news of a successful surgery. But her health crisis was not over; she now had cancer to beat. Lisa spent the next few months of her recovery from surgery receiving oral chemotherapy treatments for her breast cancer. She later had a bilateral mastectomy (due to lymph nodes being discovered) with reconstruction, ultimately enduring a total of eight surgeries.
Still reeling from the newness of her double health crisis and surgery, she had treatments to face; but she was also a single mother to two boys who had to get back to work. With employee health insurance in place, she felt comforted knowing she could face the health challenges ahead of her.
Then, another blow came, as she was let go by her company. With no income, and relying on COBRA as temporary health insurance, she didn’t know where to turn. That’s when ThriveWell Cancer Foundation stepped in.
ThriveWell is a San Antonio nonprofit dedicated to finding a cure for cancer by funding research, providing patient support, and offering programs to improve the quality of life for patients and their families in San Antonio and its surrounding communities. Not only did ThriveWell assist with transportation to doctors’ appointments, but they also helped with her co-pays to get the treatment she needed. Thanks to the support of ThriveWell, seven years later, Lisa is cancer-free and re-married to a wonderful co-survivor husband.
“ThriveWell came into my life at a time when I had lost hope. I am truly blessed and most grateful for all ThriveWell has done for me and my family!” She feels blessed to spend time with her tribe, which includes her four children, husband, and mom.
A recognized community volunteer who has received many awards, including “Volunteer of the Year” from United Way and the San Antonio Business Journal, Lisa has fought alongside other breast cancer survivors to testify before the State Legislators at the State Capitol in Austin to help get HB170- Mammograph passed, which requires insurance plans to cover diagnostic mammograms in full.
Her message to others? “Early detection saves lives,” she says. Adding that, she found the “Can in cancer!” and that “life is all good.” She explains that she’s looking ahead, loving, laughing, and living. She says she’s a walking testimony on how ThriveWell helps people survive and thrive.
Erin Ercoline, Executive Director, ThriveWell Cancer Foundation, explains that the Foundation provides “tangible support to cancer patients, helping them get to and pay for their life-saving treatment, as well as offering free exercise, nutrition, and wellness classes through our Diva&Dude, that keep survivors healthy and thriving.”
PHOTO BY DRU PHOTOGRAPHY
Living and Laughing through Lifesaving Treatment
Betsy Achilles, 70, knows of the invaluable support offered by ThriveWell after first being diagnosed with lobular breast cancer, Stage 2a in 2007. She took her diagnosis in her stride as she underwent a radical bilateral mastectomy, expander surgery, and then silicone implants. There were no complications, and she successfully responded to eight rounds of dense chemotherapy.
Upon completion of treatment, she was referred to ThriveWell and the Diva program by her oncologist, Dr. Luis Rodriguez at the START Center for Cancer Care. Diva&Dude was developed in response to research that shows that cancer patients who follow diet and exercise guidelines can significantly reduce their chance of recurrence. Across San Antonio, Diva&Dude has multiple locations offering a variety of exercise classes. Last year alone, 1,600 free exercise, nutrition and wellness classes were provided to more than 1,200 cancer patients and survivors.
“Dr. Rodriguez empowered me to take good care of myself once my treatments were completed. Through the DIVA Program, I stayed abreast of my breast cancer recovery, made ‘breast friends’ with other breast cancer survivors, and learned how proper nutrition and regular exercise reduces my risk of cancer recurrence and increases my overall good health,” says Betsy.
In 2013, she learned the breast cancer had returned, and this time it was metastatic breast cancer, stage 4. Despite her fears, she tackled it head-on with dense-dose chemotherapy to delay disease progression and was prescribed 45 days of high dose radiation. It had returned as an aggressive form of HER2+ mutation, and for the second time, she lost her hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. She has been in continuous chemotherapy since 2013 and is receiving IV therapy every three weeks.
When discussing her life-saving treatment, she says, “I’m responding 100% to a drug called Herceptin. Today, I’m living with breast cancer. I’m living a happy and active life with this chronic disease. It is indeed possible to survive and thrive.” Her positivity shines through as she says that her breast cancer journey “has been amazing,” and that her family, friends, faith, the START Center, and ThriveWell have gotten her to the amazing place she’s in today.
“I’m healthy. I’m happy. I travel. I have fun. I’m living life to the fullest with breast cancer.”
BY KRISTINA GILLEN ADERHOLD