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When Lisa Pitre, a Mayo Clinic speech pathologist from Jacksonville, Florida, went in for a routine mammogram in summer 2019, nothing on her imaging was concerning.
By October, though, Lisa was diagnosed with stage 4 invasive lobular carcinoma, an aggressive type of breast cancer.
"I learned that 20% of breast cancers are not detected on mammograms, and mine was one of those," says the 53-year-old mother of two, noting that her cancer was found only after an MRI was performed.
Lisa's primary care physician ordered the imaging test after she began to gain weight and have pain and bloating in her abdomen. The scan identified cancer in her liver, bones, and the orbit of her eye.
"Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story with this type of cancer," says Lisa.
This type of breast cancer, also known as infiltrating lobular carcinoma, is the second most common form diagnosed in the U.S., accounting for about 10% of all invasive breast cancers. Due to the way the cancer cells accumulate, it is often challenging to see on traditional mammography. Advanced imaging is usually required.
Alyssa Pitre, Lisa's 24-year-old daughter, recently marked the anniversary of her mom's diagnosis by sharing her thoughts on social media, encouraging others to be proactive regarding their health.
"Breast Cancer Awareness Month is always tough for me because this disease has changed so many aspects of mine and my family's life so drastically," Alyssa wrote on her Facebook feed.
Due to the aggressiveness of her type of breast cancer, Lisa has received several different therapies to date, but the future is uncertain.
"She is currently about to start her third rotation with chemotherapy. She has been on the brink of death two times," Alyssa shared. "She continues to fight, and our family fights with her."
Alyssa says she's experienced a lot of fear and uncertainty over the past two years, but the journey has given her the opportunity to reflect and grow.
"There is a vulnerability that comes with a family member having cancer as your perspective changes. My mom went from being this huge boss lady to being a patient … from being a parent taking care of you to you now needing to take care of them. But on a positive note, it forces you to deal with your problems head-on. Our family dynamic has gotten better," says Alyssa.
Also, watching her mom fight against cancer has given Alyssa renewed perspective. A bad grade on a test is not as life-altering as some of her classmates might believe, says Alyssa, who showed support for her mom by shaving her head when Lisa's began to fall out.
"I've had to come terms with my own mortality, too," she adds.
Due to COVID-19 and Lisa's fragile health, Alyssa, who attends school in Philadelphia, had not been able to see her mom much in the past two years. But this Thanksgiving, she's coming home and is most excited to spend time in the kitchen with her mom. "My grandmother loved baking, and my mom took that over for our family. I look forward to baking and learning some tricks of the trade with my grandmother's special Italian cookie recipes," she says.
Spreading the word
As her mom continues her breast cancer journey, Alyssa says she hopes to bring more awareness to the disease and spur others to action by sharing about Lisa.
"She continues to fight, and our family has had to face many harsh realities, but we understand that this struggle isn't just ours to bear. Statistics say that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. Please consider urging your family members to get routine mammograms and perform self-breast exams," Alyssa wrote in her social media post.
"It means so much to me that my daughter is spreading the word, that she is speaking out also about additional testing options," says Lisa. "My mission is to push for more aggressive testing for these 'sneaky' cancers because I did everything I was supposed to do in order to catch breast cancer early, but the recommended testing was not enough."