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Survivor voices: Real women share their experiences with breast cancer during COVID-19

Cancer doesn’t wait for COVID. Here’s what it is like to battle breast cancer amid a pandemic.


This article is a part of Studio/B’s Breast Cancer Explored series, exploring the state of breast cancer in 2020 through stories from survivors, loved ones, doctors, and researchers.

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Tonia Hines was undergoing treatment for HER2+ Metastatic breast cancer, her second bout with breast cancer, when public health experts declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. She was scared when her doctor pushed her appointment back by two weeks.

“The woman who called told me, ‘We need to have a better idea of how we are going to handle everybody coming in here, and we need to make sure everybody is safe,’” recalls Tona (that’s what Tonia’s friends call her). “She was like, ‘Are you okay with that?’ And I was like, ‘Not really, but I understand.’”

“This is my journey”

Tonia Hines

Tona was first diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2007 when she was almost 40. Nine years later, she felt a lump in her neck. “I told the doctor, ‘I’m scared. They always did tell me there’s a possibility that it might come back. It comes back for some people, but it doesn’t come back for everybody.”

When she went through the MRI machine doctors found the cancer had spread from her right breast to her liver.

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But Tona says she is doing quite well, and her treatment plan is working. Besides the initial postponement, she hasn’t had any complications with her treatment due to COVID.

A pill every morning. Chemo every three weeks. A shot in the stomach every three months. “Unless someone comes up with a cure, this is part of my regiment for the rest of my life,” she says.

She has made peace with it, though. “We all have a journey, and this is my journey. There is nothing I can do about it. The only thing I can do is try to be the best me I can be for me and for my children. I am leaving a legacy for them to know they have a strong, powerful Black mother.”

Tona says her sons—Devin, 23, and Derrick, 28—took care of her through it all. Derrick remembers being in a panic when she was first diagnosed. “I thought it was going to be terminal, but luckily, it wasn’t,” he says. “Then I thought, I am not going to count her out. I had a feeling she was going to make it. And low and behold, she did.”

Devin says his mom is a fighter. He wants to go into medicine so he can find a cancer cure. “It is all about God. He wants my mom to keep on living because he has a bigger purpose for her,” he says.

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“It is just completely surreal”

Julie Kontos

Julie Kontos is 36 and lives in West Roxbury, Mass. Her routine physical was rescheduled from April to October because of the pandemic. In June, she came across a lump in her breast, so she made an appointment with her primary care physician who sent her for a mammogram and ultrasound. Next was a biopsy. “I didn’t have a good feeling about it due to the urgency,” Julie says.

Julie’s radiologist told her the cancer was very treatable. Since then, it has been a blur of appointments. She says she wasn’t thinking much about COVID when she first got the diagnosis—she just wanted to get better. But she recently started chemo, so now it is on her mind. “I don’t want to have a low immune system with COVID going on,” she explains.

Julie feels safe at her appointments and says everyone is taking the necessary precautions. The most surprising part of it all is that she felt so healthy leading up to the diagnosis.

“How do you never have any health issues and then you’re diagnosed with something as major as cancer? It is just completely surreal,” she says. “Even after my first chemo treatment, I still don’t think my diagnosis has hit me.”

“I was scared … so I waited”

Fabianna Marie with her husband David

In 2005, when Fabianna Marie was 27, she was diagnosed with triple-negative, stage 2 breast cancer. She and her husband, David, had just bought a house and had their daughter, Mackenzie, one year prior.

Since then, she has had more than 200 rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and three surgeries. Currently, she is on an oral chemotherapy drug that “keeps the cancer at bay.”

Her journey inspired her to become a naturopathic doctor. “Treatment for me incorporates more than medications. It is treating yourself with whole wellness—mind, body, and soul,” she says.

Mentally, COVID-19 has been hard. Survivors have to focus not just on cancer, but on COVID and cancer, she explains. Some patients, Fabianna included, pushed back medical visits due to fear of the virus.

“I waited a bit too long to have my scans, and, in turn, my tumors stopped responding to the treatment plan and we had to switch up medications and protocol,” she explains. “I was scared of COVID, so I waited. Honestly, in some ways, it was a break from thinking only about cancer. I think I made excuses why not to go for my checkup, instead of putting my trust in the medical facilities.”

Fabianna’s treatment is on track now, and she is confident medical facilities are “taking every precaution to keep us safe.” She is doing her best to stay strong—physically and mentally. She says the best advice she ever got for doing this was from a stranger she met while waiting for her initial consultation with her oncology team:

“She quietly leaned over, put her hand on my mine and said, ‘My darling, 99% of this will be your mental fight.’ I sat with tears in my eyes, knowing this fight was going to be tough, but I had to be tougher.”

Fabianna says she thinks about those words daily.

Tona, Julie, Fabianna and their families want a cure for cancer. To contribute to valuable research, visit https://www.cancer.org.

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

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