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Breast cancer survivor Rachel Lezcano. Photo by Andrew Neel @andrewtneel.

Early detection is key to cancer survivorship, and Rachel Lezcano and her care team know this first-hand. A Greensboro, North Carolina, resident, Lezcano credits a diligent group of doctors and the support of family and a survivor community that helped make a difference in her battle with breast cancer.

Dealing with a pre-existing gastrointestinal condition that comes with an increased risk for breast, colon and cervical cancer, Lezcano’s physician at UNC Health urged her to begin regular mammograms at age 25.

“I don’t have the BRCA gene, but it’s like that,” she said. “I’m high risk for other things.”

That risk proved all too real when Lezcano, 27, received the results of her first mammogram in April, 2019, which detected invasive ductal carcinoma. Lezcano already had a good relationship with her doctor at UNC, and soon after diagnosis, met with UNC Lineberger’s Stephanie Downs-Canner, MD, to discuss the risks and benefits of having a double mastectomy.

“That’s the moment that [cancer] felt real,” Lezcano said. “I knew how serious it was, and everything changed.”

That was when Lezcano’s relationship with Downs-Canner began in earnest. She said the doctor was a comforting presence in her life and throughout her cancer journey as she faced a mastectomy, reconstruction and an infection that delayed her implants until earlier this year.

Lezcano had the support of her husband, David, throughout her cancer journey.

“There are doctors who are doctors because they are passionate about what they’re doing, and she is one of those doctors,” Lezcano said. “It was such a scary thing, but there was so much comfort there.”

Building relationships and finding support

She also found comfort in her faith, which helped get her through some rough times. “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my faith and relationship with the Lord helped me through and gave me the strength to get through. When times were hard, he got me through.”

Though cancer and COVID-19 caused some delays, Rachel and David Lezcano married in March, 2020. Photo by David Lezcano @thedlcreative.

Lezcano also had support from those closest to her, including David, her then-boyfriend of three years and now husband. They became engaged during a trip to England and Italy in 2019 and planned their wedding for March of this year, but had to rethink their plans due to COVID-19. Though they married in March, they waited until October to celebrate their wedding with friends and family, including Downs-Canner and plastic surgeon Jennifer Carr, MD.

“Relationships with friends and family are more important to me now,” she said. “I appreciate the people that were there for me, and the whole year we’ve been through we can come out on the other side.”

Lezcano also said that talking about her cancer was beneficial, and she was surprised to find a like-minded community of patients and survivors online, something she’s become passionate about and actively engages with still. She was thrilled to find more people going through the same thing as she was, chatting about topics like what to wear and how to work out after surgery.

“As much as people wanted to be there for me, they didn’t understand what I was going through,” she said. “Finding other [patients] was life changing. I don’t know how I would have made it through without those connections.”

Lezcano credits her relationship with her doctors, including UNC Lineberger’s Stephanie Downs-Canner, MD, with helping her get through cancer.

Creating support for breast cancer patients under 30

Downs-Canner agrees, and thinks others can benefit from patient voices like Lezcano did. She is coordinating with Carr and Patty Spears, research manager for Patient Advocates for Research Council, to create a support group for patients under 30.

“We are working on starting the program, and Rachel is part of the inspiration for that,” Downs-Canner said. “I feel strongly that young women have a lot of unique needs, and it feels a little lonely when you’re the only person who looks like you in the waiting room.”

Some of the issues the group may address include the isolation some younger breast cancer patients feel when most of their fellow patients are older, as well as fertility, sexual health and lifestyle needs that younger patients can face after diagnosis, including maintaining a job, and caring for young children or aging parents.

“We recognize the social and emotional needs they have, and that they need each other,” Downs-Canner said.

Downs-Canner said she hopes to see the group launch within a year and already has a few patients interested in providing input, including Lezcano.

“No one wants to go through cancer, but I’m trying to make a positive out of a negative and look at the silver lining,” Lezcano said. “Having incredible doctors made it easier. I never felt alone. I truly believe all of the people I’ve met through this process have made a huge impact in my life.”

“Because her cancer was caught early, Rachel was treated in a way that minimized the impact on her quality of life,” Downs-Canner said. “For example, she didn’t require chemotherapy, in part due to being screened early. Because it was found at such an early stage, her prognosis is excellent.”

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