Melissa Berry put her fashion and beauty background to good use during her journey with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), by creating the Cancer Fashionista, an online resource for essential style tips for patients with cancer. In an exclusive Q&A, she’s answering questions about her own experience with TNBC, from diagnosis to thriving seven years on.
What was your first reaction when hearing the words, ”triple negative” when you got your diagnosis?
My immediate reaction was, “triple negative sounds triple bad!” Upon my diagnosis, I immediately scheduled a consultation with my breast oncologist. Fortunately, I already had a long-standing relationship with a genetic breast oncologist because I’m a BRCA 1 gene carrier and was closely monitored for several years prior to my diagnosis.
I attribute my positive outcome to a couple of things. First and foremost, I found tnbc.org! Their website and organization is not only information, but also incredibly community oriented and supportive. I found current information, but also a special group of women who were going through the same thing that I was going through.
Secondly — taking my mother’s great advice to get tested for the BRCA gene, since we’ve had so much breast cancer in our family, was a key factor to my survivorship. If I wasn’t so closely monitored, I don’t know that my breast cancer would have been detected so early in the game. I was diagnosed with stage 1 triple negative breast cancer with no lymph node involvement. My treatment included a bilateral mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy.
I recall my oncologist explaining to me that although triple negative breast cancer sounds pretty bad, it’s also very responsive to chemotherapy, and the likelihood of a recurrence decreases significantly once you’ve hit the five-year mark. I’m so grateful to say that I am now at my seven-year mark!
What were some of the day-to-day challenges that you faced while living with TNBC that oftentimes go undiscussed?
One of the most difficult challenges that I faced during my TNBC treatment was my depression and anxiety. Facing a cancer diagnosis head-on is difficult enough, but the one thing that I didn’t expect was the psychological effect that the chemotherapy drugs can have on you. I would love this conversation to be opened up and discussed more regularly.
What are three things that a breast cancer survivor needs to transition back to work, and what should their colleagues be mindful of?
1) Flexibility and patience; if possible, speak to your employer and colleagues and let them know you’ll need some time to transition back in. Your memory may be foggy, and you may experience fatigue during the day. It’s best to let your team know to be patient with you as you transition back in to your full time role
2) Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time, and your healing isn’t just physical, it’s also emotional. You may not be able to complete tasks as quickly as you did before. Your attention span may be compromised. Try to make your task lists very realistic and achievable, this way you’ll feel productive as well as positive about returning to the workplace.
3) Having an active social life makes you feel better and happier. You may not feel like going out for late dinners or drinks with your co-workers, so instead don’t hesitate to suggest lunch or even a coffee before the workday begins.
Tell us a little bit more about Cancer Fashionista. What does that entail? Any other fun projects on the horizon?
My background is fashion and beauty PR. Throughout my breast cancer journey, I struggled to look and feel my best during such a difficult chapter of my life. I began scouring the internet for beauty tips and tricks to help manage the appearance-related side effects of my experience, as well as for niche products that would help me with recovery from treatment. I began to keep track of the best advice and items that I found, then created the CancerFashionista.com blog to share my recommendations with other women facing similar diagnoses.
Cancer Fashionista quickly grew in popularity with its readers and followers on social media, and I’m proud to say that I’ve become a trusted voice in the breast cancer community, as well as in the triple negative breast cancer community. In 2016, I received the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation’s Courage Award which was a truly incredible honor.
Today, I sit proudly on the Board of Trustees for the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. I hold breast cancer workshops, moderate panel discussions, advocate for triple negative breast cancer, and help women look and feel their best throughout their breast cancer journeys and beyond.
My fashion and beauty background combined with my TNBC experience has afforded me the unique ability to research and report on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle resources and trends that the breast cancer community can truly benefit from.
I’m currently working on some exciting projects with several different publications, non-profit organizations, and like-minded brands. I can’t wait to share more with you as these initiatives solidify!
You spoke of a longstanding relationship with your breast oncologist. Why is it important to have a close relationship with your medical support team?
I was fortunate enough to have a really wonderful breast oncologist who was there for me every step of the way. After my diagnosis, our relationship evolved from very serious and critical to a more lighthearted one. As the years went on without recurrence, my appointments were stretched out and I saw him less and less. I actually began to miss him! There’s something really comforting about being closely monitored. It feels safe, a layer of protection. As time goes on and you see your oncologist less and less, it feels as though the cord has been cut. During my last chemotherapy treatment, I remember him telling me, “Survivorship is the hardest part.” I had no idea what he meant until now.
Follow Melissa on Instagram @cancerfashionista.