“Since I was breastfeeding, my doctor thought it was a clogged milk duct. He said I was too young to have breast cancer.” But after tests and a biopsy, Katerina learned she did. “When I learned the news, my first thought was ‘My children are not going to know me.’ We had a rough couple of days, and then we made a plan.”
She underwent a bilateral mastectomy on Valentine’s Day of 2010 followed by chemotherapy and participation in a clinical trial of Avastin.
“I was in survival mode, one day at a time. I tried to move a little bit forward each day. My husband was by my side every step of the way and my two sisters put their lives on hold to help with our children..”
The Gmitter family moved to North Carolina from New Jersey earlier this year. “We wanted a lifestyle change,” Katerina explains, “We wanted warmer weather, to be surrounded by nature and more local farms."
What she didn’t find was a support group for young women with breast cancer. “When I was in New Jersey, I attended a group, and it helped me. Knowing other women who had gone through this and who were there to support each other built great camaraderie. We shared ways of coping, managing fears, anxiety and practical issues as well, such as kids, getting through the days, all kinds of issues that come with being a survivor who was diagnosed very young.”
She called around the Triangle, consulted with her UNC physician, Dr. Carey Anders, and was put in touch with Elizabeth Sherwood, UNC Cancer Care’s coordinator for survivorship programs. “Liz said, ‘There’s a need. Let’s start a group,’ so we organized the group for all young women in the Triangle area ages 18-45 with breast cancer.”
Katerina says, “It’s crucial for young women to get support through their journey. The biggest thing is not feeling alone.” The group meets on the first Tuesday of each month at Carolina Pointe II.
Katerina and her husband, Jason, have made changes in their lives as a result of her diagnosis. “With our family, we try to focus on the positive things in life. Our family takes the path of full health and wellness, making sure we have ‘down’ time, being outside as much as we can, living in a chemical-free house, and eating a healthy diet.”
She says,” It’s a challenge on a daily basis coping with the cancer issues while raising children, nurturing a marriage and staying healthy. When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, you’re dealing with that diagnosis and with side effects for a longer time. Chemotherapy treatments can put you into early menopause, and that raises health issues such as heart disease and osteoporosis, conditions I should be thinking about in my 50s, not my 30s.”
Katerina’s mother died at the age of 48 from breast cancer. She explains, “I know I am BRCA-positive. My mother didn’t have that knowledge, but I know that my son and daughter have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene. We’re doing everything we can to promote their health and know that they’ll have to make decisions about being tested when they get older.”
In addition to leading the Triangle “Young Women with Breast Cancer” Group, Katerina is also involved with FORCE (Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered), a nonprofit organization that assists those affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.