Ghecemy Lopez: Serving as an Advocate after Surviving Breast Cancer

Age: 39Los Angeles, California

I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in February 2011. Thanks to a combination of multiple surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, there has been no evidence of the breast cancer for more than eight years. My experience and talking with other cancer survivors motivated me to become a survivor-advocate and patient navigator, and to pursue a doctorate in social work with a focus on closing health gaps, especially in my community.

It all started just after my 30th birthday, in February 2011. My husband and I were at home watching TV when I felt a lump in my right breast. I was tempted to ignore it because we were preparing to go on a trip, but my husband insisted that I get it checked out. Within days, I had a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy. When I heard the news that I had breast cancer, I was shocked. A movie of my life went through my mind, but all I could think about were the things that I had not done yet; would I have time to accomplish my goals?

My doctor told me that I had a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer. She also told me that there were no oral medications for this type of breast cancer; I would need surgery and chemotherapy.

My cancer was so aggressive that in the 18 days between the biopsy and first surgery, my diagnosis changed from stage I to stage II because the cancer had grown dramatically in size. The lumpectomy [surgery to remove the cancer and some normal tissue around it, but not the breast itself] was successful and fortunately, the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes.

Because the cancer was so aggressive, the doctor recommended intensive chemotherapy with docetaxel and cyclophosphamide to make sure that I had a better chance of the cancer not recurring. The chemotherapy was brutal, but there has been no evidence of the breast cancer since.

Given how young I was, I went through genetic counseling and genetic testing. The results showed that I have a BRCA1 mutation. This helped me understand a little better why breast cancer had happened to me. It also made me decide to have a preventive bilateral mastectomy, which is a surgery to remove both breasts in order to reduce my chance of the cancer recurring and to reduce my chance of having a second breast cancer.

I eventually found out that I inherited the BRCA1 mutation from my father. It has been very hard to explain to several members of my extended family in Mexico that this mutation may have caused several diagnoses and deaths in our family because of limited health literacy and cultural taboos around cancer.

The experience with my extended family and encouragement from my genetic counselor, who told me that my community needed me when I was at a particularly low point in my journey, led me to my life as a survivor-advocate, patient navigator, and graduate student.

I started my advocacy by joining the USC Norris Survivorship Advisory Council, which works to promote cancer research, improve health outcomes, and provide a more satisfying patient experience. Not long after, I was fortunate to take part in a Project LEAD advocacy training program run by the National Breast Cancer Coalition and taught by extraordinary scientists from major research universities. As a result of everything I learned during the training about cancer research and the ways in which advocates can impact research, I have served as a programmatic grant reviewer for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program and for the California Breast Cancer Research Council.

In addition to the advocacy, I got involved in cancer education outreach in the most underserved communities in Los Angeles, many of which have a large population of Spanish speakers. Today, I work as a lay patient navigator at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. In this role, I have helped over 420 patients and caregivers who are facing social concerns that make their cancer treatment difficult, such as issues with housing, finances, and transportation. I sometimes go with patients to their appointments or interpret for them.

I am looking forward to graduating with a doctorate in social work this summer because it will help me pursue the new life goal I set after being diagnosed with breast cancer: to work to address the social issues that lead to gaps in health care.