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“Every woman should be performing breast self-exams. We need to know our bodies — we only have one.”

January 2019 — While breastfeeding her 8-month-old daughter, Carmela Carr, then 30, found a pea-sized lump in her breast. Knowing she needed to safeguard her health, she quickly made an appointment with her health provider, certified nurse midwife Kathryn Speckel.

With no family history of breast cancer, Carmela was scheduled for an ultrasound and mammogram. Shortly after, she received the results and a diagnosis — stage 2 breast cancer.

“Every woman should be performing breast self-exams,” says Carmela. “Where would I be if I hadn’t felt that lump and recognized a change in my breast tissue? We need to know our bodies — we only have one.”

Carmela, a Geisinger wellness specialist, admits that she and her husband, Travis, had to allow themselves some time to absorb and process the news, which is only natural. 

What happens after a cancer diagnosis?

After a cancer diagnosis, it’s completely normal to feel a variety of emotions, including fear or confusion, according to Dr. Victor Vogel, a medical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer. 

His suggestion?

Start by taking some time to gather your thoughts. There can be a lot of information given to you in a short period of time. And be sure to ask your doctor to repeat anything you aren’t clear on or write it down during your appointment.

Dr. Vogel, who was part of Carmela’s care team, also offers this suggestion to stay organized:

“Keep everything from your appointments in the same place,” he says. “Whether that’s in a binder or in your phone, carry it with you to each appointment to keep track of your treatment, bills and any other important information along the way. It’s also a good idea to write down any questions you have before heading to your appointments.”

In addition, Dr. Vogel suggests finding a support network, which can help you feel like you’re not alone.

“Joining a support group or talking with a social worker can make the process a little less overwhelming and prepare you for any physical or emotional changes that lie ahead,” he explains. “After your diagnosis, your doctor can connect you to available resources to help you navigate your journey. We want to know what you need help with. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Dealing with physical and emotional changes

After her breast cancer diagnosis, Carmela says her road to recovery began almost immediately. Within one month, she started chemotherapy at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. By the summertime, she was undergoing radiation treatments under the care of breast cancer radiation oncologist Dr. Alfred Christie. A double mastectomy followed, with breast reconstruction surgery planned for later this year.

“My team worked together to give me the best care, to explain everything and help with whatever I needed,” she says. “My social worker Maggie Henderson was nice and extremely helpful.”

Carmela also benefited from Geisinger’s strong community roots. Her husband’s aunt was one of Carmela’s nurses at the Knapper Clinic. “She was always willing to help,” Carmela says. “Having her there made things a little easier on all of us.”

Undergoing treatment did take a physical toll on Carmela, who experienced neuropathy, a condition which made her lose sensation in her feet and fingers. She also lost weight, her sense of taste and her hair. Not surprisingly, treatments also sapped her energy.

There were emotional tolls, too — especially related to fatigue that made it difficult to enjoy some of her baby’s developmental milestones.

But despite the challenges she faced, Carmela accepted her circumstances and refused to let cancer dictate her story.

Getting back to herself

With the help of her husband and daughters, Carmela stayed busy and active, which helped her stay focused and recover.

A turning point was when she was able to enjoy her favorite food, a cheesesteak, at the Bloomsburg Fair in September. She’s also started regaining energy and is feeling more like herself again.

Throughout her breast cancer journey, Carmela discovered that her resilience comes from learning, growing and adapting during one of the most difficult times in her life. 

“I won’t say that I’m grateful for cancer,” she says. “But I’m grateful for what it has taught me. I’ve learned to focus on what matters most in life, and above all else, that we are all fighting our own battles. Life is hard, so let’s be kind to one another.”

A little bit of advice

Despite the challenges she faced during her cancer treatment, Carmela says staying on her routine helped her keep her focus and ultimately heal. “I never wanted people to feel sad for me. A lot of other people have it worse. Thinking about that helps keep things in perspective,” says Carmela.

She offers some advice for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis.

“I tried to be open and honest so that people saw it could happen to anyone. Cancer treatment can be physically painful and emotionally exhausting. But being open about it helps others help you. There is life after cancer.”

Next steps:

A cancer diagnosis can bring unexpected challenges. Find resources to help.
Get support for life after cancer
Schedule an appointment with Alfred Christie, MD
Schedule an appointment with Victor Vogel, MD

Carmella Carr spending time with her family
When she started to lose her hair, husband Travis and daughter Paisley helped Carmela shave her head.
Carmela Carr celebrates her final chemotherapy session
Carmela says, “Cancer treatment can be physically painful and emotionally exhausting. But being open about it helps others help you. There is life after cancer.”
Carmela Carr spending time with her family
After completing treatment, Carmela has more energy to keep up with her two daughters.