I felt like the people at Fox Chase saw me as a human being, not just a cancer case or a number.
‐Tiffany Mannino Dillon
I remember the day I was diagnosed so clearly. December 16, 2009.
Finding "My Place"
I had just been in a bad car accident and when the airbag deployed, it left my upper body aching. I was in the shower hoping the hot water would ease my aching muscles when I found the lump in my armpit. Initially, I brushed it off, even going so far as to joke to one of my coworkers that there was no way I had cancer on top of the car accident. But to be safe – and at my coworker’s urging – I went to get it checked out. My doctor believed it was a cyst, but ordered a mammogram just in case. After my mammogram, I hadn’t even made it to my car outside when the staff called me back in for a biopsy. Something was wrong.
I asked my gynecologist where she would go if she was in my shoes, and she gave me the name of Dr. Elin Sigurdson at Fox Chase. Overwhelmed, I scheduled an appointment, and brought my mom along for support. As I came out of the elevator, I was stunned to run into the parent of one of my students; I had no idea that she worked at Fox Chase. I told her I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and she immediately pulled me in for a hug. I felt safe and reassured. I didn’t think it was an accident I had run into her.
In the exam room, Dr. Sigurdson made small talk, which put me at ease. It turned out her daughters had gone to my school and I had known them. I believed that was no accident either. I felt like the people at Fox Chase saw me as a human being, not just a cancer case or a number. I knew I had found my place.
Because my cancer was estrogen-positive and aggressive, I elected to have a double mastectomy. I didn’t want to be back in the same position a few years down the road. I knew I wanted to have reconstruction, so Dr. Sigurdson brought in Dr. Sameer Patel to start the breast reconstruction process in that first surgery.
Going into surgery, I had another serendipitous moment; my scrub nurse was the mother of someone I had grown up with, and we lived in the same neighborhood. At every step, I felt I had my own little angels watching over me at Fox Chase.
After surgery, the doctors tested my lymph nodes and discovered that my cancer had spread. What I thought was a Stage 1 cancer was actually Stage 3, meaning I would need chemotherapy and radiation. I was devastated. Once I had healed from surgery, I underwent five months of chemotherapy with Dr. Crystal Denlinger and six weeks of radiation therapy with Dr. Shelly Hayes. Living less than five minutes from Fox Chase Buckingham, I was grateful to have an option close to home.
A Dream Lost
When I was diagnosed, I was only 36. I hadn’t yet had children but knew I wanted to, so I decided to freeze my eggs before chemotherapy. But since my cancer was estrogen-driven, my care team recommended I have my ovaries removed. I sought a second opinion, which confirmed the recommendation. My family encouraged me to have the surgery, as well. But I struggled with letting go of my dream to be a mother. I reluctantly agreed to the surgery, and in August 2010 I had my ovaries removed.
In addition to surgery, chemo, and radiation, Fox Chase provided an important way for me to process what I was going through. I started seeing a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase, and she helped me deal with hair loss, early menopause, and the changes happening to my body. As a young single woman with cancer, I didn’t see anyone like me, and I felt isolated. For a long period I was focused only on being strong and just trying to get through each treatment. But once I was past the active treatment phase, I started to think about what my new life looked like. I was able to grieve the loss of my fertility and accept that I was no longer the person I was when I was diagnosed. I felt like the people at Fox Chase were concerned about helping me get better and helping me feel whole again.
Coming Full Circle
I’ve always been a creative person, and I channeled this during my cancer experience. I kept a journal, created some art pieces, and wrote a children’s story for my five-year-old niece, who was too young to understand what was happening to me. When I lost my hair, I used headscarves rather than wigs, and wound up collecting 47 scarves of different colors, styles, and patterns. I love to travel but couldn’t since I was sick. In the book, I showed my niece the scarves, and they became magical, allowing us to travel in our minds to all the places my body wouldn’t allow me to go. The story ends with my favorite scarf, a pink one I wore to my first breast cancer walk. It made me feel like a warrior and my niece finally understood and saw me as a warrior too.
My students last year were so artistic and were always drawing or doodling. I asked if they wanted to illustrate the book for me and they jumped at the chance. When we started we had no plan of publishing it, but as it unfolded and I saw their passion and talent, I wanted to make it happen for them. We self-published and decided to donate any proceeds to Fox Chase. Last May, we were invited to do a book signing at Fox Chase. While some of the kids were nervous about going to the hospital, they relaxed immediately – much like I had nearly a decade before. It felt like I had come full circle.
I teach social studies and I enjoy visiting the magnificent places I teach about. I’ve been to China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and across South America and Europe. Australia is my only continent left to conquer – not counting Antarctica. I’m grateful to be healthy enough to travel again.
A Hollywood Ending
After my cancer, I worried about dating. I had so many fears and so much self-doubt that I didn’t want to go on any dates or entertain the idea of a relationship. I worried about whether future partners would see me as damaged goods or whether it would be a deal-breaker for them that I couldn’t have children. I finally started testing the waters, meeting a lot of frogs, and, finally, my prince charming. We had been friends for a few years when he asked me out and we got married in June 2018. I never thought I would have a relationship again but I’m happy to have been wrong.
I’ve been disease-free for nine years now and my path has been studded with milestones, both big and small. When I was in treatment, I looked forward to milestones like finishing radiation and my last chemo treatment. When I hit the five-year mark, I threw myself a survival party and later I celebrated when I was able to stop taking all my medications. At my last appointment, my oncologist told me I could start coming in once a year, rather than every six months, and that felt like a victory as well. Some of the milestones are smaller. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed and we were chatting about some of the details of treatment and I realized that I no longer remembered. I had gotten to the point where my cancer wasn’t at the forefront of my mind anymore. Instead, I get to think about what lessons I’m planning for my students, what country I’ll travel to next, and what weekend plans I have with my husband. I get to just think about life now. And that’s the greatest gift.
Learn more about breast cancer treatments at Fox Chase Cancer Center.