Hope filled Mount Sinai South Nassau’s conference center on Oct. 24th as breast cancer survivor Angela Santopolo, 33, gave a breathtaking and inspiring testimony of her breast cancer journey, and breast cancer experts provided an in-depth update on medical and surgical advancements in the treatment of breast cancer as well as a complete review of clinical trials for potentially ground-breaking breast cancer treatments at the hospital’s annual breast cancer symposium.
Santopolo gave her account of her diagnosis of stage IIA cancer at age 32, her treatments, and how she continued working as a fourth-grade teacher and pursued a master’s degree at Fordham while being treated for stage IIA cancer in her breast.
In July of 2022 at a routine exam, Santopolo’s gynecologist noticed an anomaly in her right breast. After a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, she was diagnosed with cancer and started a barrage of tests in Aug. 2022 to determine her course of treatment.
Santopolo underwent her first chemo treatment on Sept. 30, 2022. The chemotherapy caused Santopolo’s hair to fall out but she said the worst side effect was the nausea she suffered and tried everything to assuage, from recommended medication to holistic treatments. She continued working as a fourth-grade teacher through her treatments, commuting into Manhattan by train. During this time, she was also attending classes at Fordham University for her master’s degree.
Santopolo received her final chemo treatment on Jan. 6 of this year and credits the compassionate and expert care provided by her physicians Christine Hodyl, director of breast health services at Mount Sinai South Nassau, and Dhvani Thakker, director of women’s medical oncology, who she said gave her the hope and encouragement she needed to get through her chemo.
Thakker presented treatments for the side effects of chemotherapy Mount Sinai doctors Michael Zeidman and Lillian Huang gave presentations on surgical options, clinical trials, and potentially ground-breaking breast cancer treatments such as breast-conserving surgery to preserve healthy breast tissue.
Thanks to clinical trials throughout the years, doctors have been able to deescalate treatments for breast cancer. De-escalation treatments are minor surgeries that require less chemotherapy than in decades past. De-escalation has improved patients’ quality of life while having no adverse impact on the rate of cancer recurrence or life expectancy.
The biggest advancement in breast cancer treatment is the widespread adoption of screening mammograms, which can catch tumors when they’re small before cancer has spread to lymph nodes and metastasized. These advancements have paved the way for de-escalation of treatments. Another advancement has been groundbreaking-targeted treatments for the disease and therapies that have been approved for use at earlier stages.
In February, Santopolo took medical leave from teaching and school to receive a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
For Santopolo, the first two weeks were the hardest. She was heavily medicated to reduce the pain and slept a lot. But by the third week, she started going to Hewlett House, a community resource center in Hewlett, that provides services to cancer patients free of charge. Hewlett House is operated by 1 in 9, a nonprofit that’s been fighting cancer since 1990.
Geri Barish, Executive Director of Hewlett House, and president of 1 in 9: Te Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition also attended the symposium and advised patients to be careful of information found on the Internet. Cancer treatment is increasingly individualized, and patients need to speak to their doctors to determine what’s right for them. Santopolo said the yoga and reiki programs, along with the opportunity to meet other women with the same diagnosis at the Hewlett House, helped her heal mentally.
“I feel like support is so important and just being empathetic to patients’ needs,” said Santopolo. “That’s huge. I think that doctors and nurses should be empathetic, not just throw words at you that you don’t understand or tell you something and rush out of the room. When you are kind and empathetic and really listening to us and explaining I think we can get a lot further.”
Santopolo graduated in May from Fordham with a master’s degree in administration and supervision. Her dream is to be a school principal.
“I accomplished something major during the darkest times of my life,” she said. “I really feel like there’s nothing I couldn’t do.”