Drawing Strength from Cancer Survivors
Amalia Rigoni of Olympia Fields thought life was going well until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Under the mentorship of a breast cancer survivor, combined with world-class treatment from experts at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC), she faced her disease with courage and determination.
She would later use her experience to help others overcome the shock and confusion of a cancer diagnosis.
Dodging a Bullet
In 2000, Amalia noticed a thickening in her right breast, but her mammogram results appeared normal. She still felt something was wrong, so she sought advice from the medical director at the insurance company where she worked. He advised her to insist on undergoing a fine-needle aspiration biopsy to investigate the suspicious tissue.
“As someone who worked in health insurance, I was used to advocating for people; now it was my turn,” she said.
This time, Amalia got an answer. At 42, she had advanced breast cancer. Although the news changed her world instantly, she felt she had dodged a bullet. She wondered what would have happened if the cancer was not discovered. While she was still reeling from the news, she received a call from Joyce, her brother’s coworker and a breast cancer survivor, who offered support during her journey.
Amalia had many decisions to make, so she sought a second opinion from the UCCCC. Seeing that a team of multidisciplinary specialists discussed her case, she knew she was in good hands.
“As scared as I was in the beginning about breast cancer, when I got to the [UCCCC], it was like the weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Amalia recalled. She had surgery to remove the tumor and 10 cancerous lymph nodes. She also underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, followed by anti-estrogen therapy.
Thirteen years later, Amalia is still cancer-free.
“Amalia is a shining example of a young patient with high-risk cancer who was treated aggressively and has done great,” said Nora Jaskowiak, MD, associate professor of surgery, who cared for Amalia, along with Gini Fleming, MD, professor of medicine. “She beat a poor prognosis.”
Amalia said she was able to get through breast cancer because of Joyce, her doctors, her loved ones, and other survivors. She became passionate about helping women realize that a diagnosis of breast cancer is not an automatic “death sentence.” In 2003, she joined the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization as a bilingual outreach educator and hotline coordinator.
“Having the support of other survivors often helps cancer patients process the emotions and navigate through the health system,” Amalia said. “My experiences with the thousands of women I have spoken with on the hotline and met in person have helped me understand that advocacy is the best weapon we have to fight this disease until a cure is found.”