A cancer journey is deeply personal, but two-time warrior Christina Vaccacio chose to look outward and uplift others through sharing her story. It ended up impacting her own life in ways she never expected.
It was July 2017 and I was diagnosed with early stage endometrial cancer at age 33. I had no symptoms, no bleeding, no bloating and no pain during sex. I happened to be in the best physical shape of my life. But that didn’t matter.
One cannot assume those who are fit are immune from cancer. One cannot assume young people don’t get cancer. And yet biases like these are still present. Medical professionals must set these biases aside and dig deeper into their patients’ family history—their genetic makeup—which may determine many medical conditions. It may even be a factor between life or death. That was my story as the only reason my gynecologist found the cancer was because she knew about my family history.
Knowledge is Power
My paternal grandfather died of colon cancer at age 52, my aunt had ovarian cancer at age 40 and survived, and my father died of colon cancer at age 57. It seemed like I was next.
Thankfully, my doctor recommended a genetic test and I tested positive for Lynch Syndrome, which is a MLH1 mutation that causes certain cells to reproduce infinitely. In normal cellular reproduction, old or damaged cells die and new ones grow. In cellular reproduction with someone who has a genetic mutation, the cells keep on multiplying with nothing in the way to stop the overgrowth. Cancers associated with Lynch Syndrome include colon, endometrial and ovarian cancer. Armed with knowledge, I took all of the recommended preventative measures that the National Comprehensive Cancer Network advises, thereby catching my cancer early on.
Getting the Works
After my doctors determined I needed a total hysterectomy to protect my life, they also suggested I harvest my eggs, a process in which the eggs that form in a female’s ovaries are removed and stored in a frozen egg bank for later fertilization. Because I did not have any children and would not be able to bear children after having my reproductive organs removed, my gut told me to go ahead with the process. So I did.
This new life is woven with many challenges that have forced me to grow, to explore and to surrender to everything I thought I knew. I have to be honest: I am not in that place, yet.
Part of the process included injecting myself with hormones and while doing so, I found a lump in my left breast. After multiple tests, scans and biopsies, I was diagnosed with stage II DCIS breast cancer that moved into my underarm lymph nodes. I had three surgeries, four months of chemo and 23 days of radiation all within two years.
Live Out Loud
Six months after radiation, I had reconstructive surgery, which was the easiest of the surgeries. However, my mobility and range of motion in my arms and shoulders were limited, and at times there was much discomfort. I spent time working with multiple physical therapists, an outstanding personal trainer and other holistic treatments to help lymph drainage because of the 16 lymph nodes my surgeon removed.
Though the end of cancer treatment may seem “celebratory” to some, life after cancer was not exactly smooth sailing. I am grateful to be cancer-free and perhaps that should be enough, but it was not. The emotional upheaval and spiritual toll is debilitating at times. Every aspect of life as I knew it altered forever. My “new normal” looked nothing like my past. Similar to our current experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, I reassessed my relationships, my work, career and other factors. Was this a gift? Maybe there was a silver lining all along.
I am doing the best I can and trying to find the moments of peace in my mind and heart like listening to a good song, reciprocating an act of kindness or cooking a good meal. Perhaps the simple joys of life are to be cherished.
I surprisingly turned to charity work and public speaking. I find honor and pure joy in sharing my story with others, raising money for women going through treatment who need financial support or raising money for foundations that fund research for Lynch Syndrome, like the Romeo Milio Lynch Syndrome Foundation. I could just cry thinking of the amazing people who created these great causes. I also connected with Myriad Genetics and have been meeting with doctors, nurses and medical staff in hopes that they will be more diligent in taking the family history of their patients’ more seriously. This gives me a real sense of purpose and it is my new-found passion.
With all of life on hold, I have been breaking the rules a bit in a desperate attempt to retain a modicum of sanity by hiking, bike riding, rowing on a stand-up paddleboard and meeting new people, all while practicing social distancing. I have officially been out of work for the last two months, but the universe sent the beautiful and talented photographer Jen Rozenbaum my way, who is also a breast cancer survivor and a boudoir photographer. We decided to do a session highlighting my scars, and the photoshoot has helped me grow more confident in my “new skin.”
This new life is woven with many challenges that have forced me to grow, to explore and to surrender to everything I thought I knew. I have to be honest: I am not in that place, yet. So I am doing the best I can and trying to find the moments of peace in my mind and heart like listening to a good song, reciprocating an act of kindness or cooking a good meal. Perhaps the simple joys of life are to be cherished. I may not have liked it, I may have resisted, but perhaps this cosmic plan is not about me. Perhaps it is about making a difference for someone else.
Beautiful life survival story I am a survivor and appreciate these words of life.😁