Dia Bacon, RN, and Donna Bacon-Gilbert were 4 years old when breast cancer claimed their mother, Lydia, at the age of 37.
“Because we were so young, we didn’t really understand the connection between her health and ours,” Ms. Bacon said. “But as we got older, we both became more aware that we were at a higher risk because of our family history and because we are African-American women.”
Risk turned into reality when both sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer, not only following their mother, but also recent trends. Studies have shown that younger African-American women are being diagnosed at a higher rate than Caucasian women of the same age. Northwell Health is also investigating why African-American women die from the disease more often than Caucasian women.
Luckily, these sisters dispelled those trends.
Stage IIA invasive ductal carcinoma
To honor the life of her mother, Ms. Bacon-Gilbert joined the Adelphi NY Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline & Support Program in 2004. As an outreach coordinator and educator, she schooled herself on pertinent topics such as the proper breast self-examination (BSE) technique and reducing risk factors for the disease.
"Before I started working there, I didn’t have the tools and specific knowledge I needed to take the best care of my breast health,” Ms. Bacon-Gilbert said. “I wasn’t doing my self-exams consistently or properly."
In 2006, Ms. Bacon-Gilbert followed the special precautions determined by her family health history and genetic background and underwent a mammogram. The images showed no sign of cancer, but a follow-up sonogram revealed abnormal tissue. A breast biopsy then revealed that the 33-year-old had Stage IIA invasive ductal carcinoma.
"I wasn’t shocked, and I didn’t panic,” she said, noting that her experience in the Adelphi program guided her decision. “But if I hadn’t advocated for myself, I would not have known about my cancer until it was too late."
Her course of care: bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy
Ms. Bacon-Gilbert’s friend recommended she consult with the breast cancer specialists at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute. Ms. Bacon-Gilbert soon met Karen Kostroff, MD, chief of breast surgery for the health system, and immediately felt reassured.
“I met her, and I thought, ‘She’s the one,’ ” Ms. Bacon-Gilbert said. “I felt the same way when I met Dr. Weiselberg, Dr. Israeli and the rest of the staff. It was like the magic team.”
Lora Weiselberg, MD, chief of breast services with Monter Cancer Center; Ron Israeli, MD, plastic surgeon at Long Island Jewish Medical Center; and Dr. Kostroff worked together to treat Ms. Bacon-Gilbert.
Her course of care included a bilateral mastectomy with breast reconstruction surgery and chemotherapy. Ms. Bacon-Gilbert received her last round of chemotherapy in 2007 and underwent her final surgery at the end of 2008.
Treating invasive ductal carcinoma
But the family’s breast cancer trials weren’t finished yet. Ms. Bacon received a diagnosis of Stage I invasive ductal carcinoma in 2008. The twin sisters were then 35 years old.
"Donna had paved the way for me, so I knew what to expect, what questions to ask and what treatments to seek,” said Ms. Bacon, who is now a cardiology nurse. “I had been with her during her care and met all of the doctors numerous times. Dr. Weiselberg is the best of the best."
Dr. Weiselberg administered chemotherapy and endocrine therapy for Ms. Bacon, and Dr. Kostroff surgically removed her malignancy. Dr. Israeli also corrected a lifelong skin condition unrelated to her cancer diagnosis.
"That additional relief was the gift that cancer gave me,” Ms. Bacon said. "And the wonderful care that Donna and I received inspired me to pursue my own career in nursing. This was meant to be."
Inspirational cancer survivors
Today, Ms. Bacon and Ms. Bacon-Gilbert are cancer-free and living full lives with their families, including Ms. Bacon-Gilbert’s baby girl, Reese, who was born in 2016. They were guest speakers at the 11th Annual Don Monti Cancer Survivors Day Celebration, hosted at the Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success.
"They are both doing great,” Dr. Weiselberg said. “These two women are inspirational examples of the importance of being proactive about your personal health."
The sisters are living proof that it’s possible to survive and thrive after a breast cancer diagnosis, according to Dr. Kostroff. “Donna and Dia share exuberance of life after treatment, and appreciation of the advances and treatments available today,” she said. "They are truly inspirational."