For Margo Dominicis and her sister, Allison Zeigler, losing their 43-year-old mother to breast cancer when they were in their 20s was a devastating blow.
It has made both women vigilant of getting themselves checked regularly.
That vigilance paid off for Margo when she had to face her own worst fears at the age of 36. She was in the shower one day in July, 2018, when she felt something sore and discovered a noticeable lump in her breast that had not been there two weeks prior.
She and her mother both had found benign lumps previously and had them checked, but this one was different. She remembers the crushing panic she felt when her doctors told her that this time, it was cancer. Her mother’s crushing illness flashed before her.
Now at age 37, Margo has undergone chemotherapy, clinical chemo trials, a double mastectomy and breast reconstructive surgery, and her doctors are telling her she is cancer free.
She feels lucky, because the cancer, an aggressive form, had not invaded her lymph nodes.
Like Margo, her mother, Paula McConahy Thompson, 17 years earlier had found a malignant lump during a self-exam, and like Margo, her mother’s cancer was aggressive.
“All I remember is sitting in the living room the day that she told us,” Margo reflected, tears welling in her eyes.
Their mother underwent a unilateral mastectomy, then reconstructive surgery, and had radiation and chemotherapy.
“She was so sick all the time,” Margo said. “They thought at one point that (her mother’s cancer) was gone, then it came back with a vengeance.”
Their mother was diagnosed in April and died Sept. 18, 2002.
“After Mom was diagnosed, I was super vigilant with everything,” she said. She had any lumps biopsied regularly and like the road her mother followed, they all came back benign — at first. Then there was the one day in the shower last July that piqued her biggest fears.
She called her gynecologist, and after having an ultrasound and a mammogram, they performed the biopsy that same day, she said, and she learned that the tumor was 5 centimeters.
“It’s not good,” her doctor said, and he told her she had cancer. “Then I lost it.”
Her husband, Bob Terek, was on an airplane on a business trip and she went to be with other family until he came home to help her cope with the news.
Her doctor referred her to a breast surgeon, Dr. Rebecca Fishman, at West Penn Hospital.
All she could think about was that she has a 2-year-old son, Luca Dominicis, at home. But she remembers Fishman calming her fears, saying, “I’m going tell you it’s a lot better than what you’re thinking right now. You’re not going to die from this.”
She was sent to a medical oncologist, Dr. Helen Analo, before having surgery, and she learned her cancer was Stage 2B triple negative.
“It’s typically the most aggressive,” she said.
Dr. Analo came up with a treatment plan for her that involved chemotherapy. She also agreed to participate in a clinical trial for an immunotherapy drug called Atezolizumab, that had been FDA approved for metastatic breast cancer.
“I don’t know if I got the drug or the placebo,” she said, but she received it every three weeks during her treatment. “I was grateful to get something on top of the usual chemo drugs, and the information they got from me will help others.”
Margo and Allison both talked about how their mother suffered from chemotherapy, being so sick at times that she couldn’t get off the floor. Margo feared this for herself. But she learned that the strides made in chemotherapy in 17 years have drastically reduced side effects, and her doctors managed her chemo to where illness was minimal, she said.
Her double mastectomy was performed on March 14. After the removal, the doctors couldn’t find any remnants of the tumor, she said. She felt the chemotherapy was effective in that, because before surgery, she could feel the tumor getting smaller and smaller through the chemo.
The doctors told her that she had a complete pathological response to the chemo and there was no evidence of cancer. She continued the clinical trial until late August. She has to revisit her oncologist in six months.
Genetic testing has shown that neither she nor Allison had tested positive for the breast cancer genes, which has left them wondering if Margo and her mother both having had breast cancer was more of a coincidence.
“No one really knows,” she said.
Margo underwent breast reconstructive surgery Sept. 9, and now, nearly a month later, she declared that she is ready to walk.
She and Allison had signed up a year ago to walk in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, which is being held Nov. 15-18 in San Diego. Allison’s plans have been pre-empted because she became pregnant.
“We’re really excited,” Allison said. The two sisters and the rest of their walking team are staging a public fundraiser at Cascade Park on Sunday called Bust Out Breast Cancer, featuring several bands and lasting from noon to 9:30 p.m. The admission fees and other money raised will go toward the cure.
“I feel good,” Margo said Monday, sporting a pink lace blouse in support of the breast cancer colors. “I’m so ready to walk.”
She and Allison walked in the 3-Day 60-mile walk in 2009 and 2011 in Cleveland in honor of their mother, to help raise funds for the cause. There, they met Karyn Mueller, a former New Castle resident who lives in Cleveland, and became fast friends. They walked on her “Think Pink” team in 2011. This year’s team, which includes six members, is called #Margostrong.
And although she still has some residual fatigue from the chemo, Margo is determined. She and her lifelong friend, Andrea Durst, who graduated with her from Neshannock High, are in it together.
“I told Karyn, when this is over, I’m doing the walk,” Margo said. “This is going to be my victory dance.”