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Patient Stories

Embracing Life Beyond Breast Cancer
By Healthy Life 2008 Spring/Summer

Susan Grillo Vitale, 48, is a five-year breast cancer survivor. “I’m a powerhouse now. I’m closer with my family and am a stronger person mentally and physically,” beamed Vitale. “I love the person I’ve become.” The past six years have been tough for the Salem resident. In 2002, after giving birth to her only son, she noticed a lump in her breast while nursing. “At first I wasn’t concerned. I figured it was just a milk duct that I didn’t notice before.” said Grillo Vitale. “However, being a new mother, I decided to be on the safe side and have it checked out.”

Grillo Vitale visited the Salem Family Center, who referred her to David Martini, M.D., a breast surgeon at North Shore Medical Center. Dr. Martini conducted an ultrasound and decided to biopsy the lump. The results changed her life—she had stage three breast cancer. “I was my holding 18 month-old son when I got the news. For a moment I was scared, but I vowed to fight it—I was going to put it behind me. I was not ready to say goodbye to my son,” she said.

Grillo Vitale, who lost her mother to breast cancer and her father to colon cancer when she was in her 20s, began her cancer treatment at the NSMC Cancer Center, with oncologist Karen Krag, M.D. She immediately began a round of chemotherapy, but when her tumor failed to respond to the treatment, she returned to Dr. Martini for a mastectomy and then underwent radiation and another round of chemotherapy as a preventive measure to stop any cancer from coming back. “Previously, breast cancer patients with Susan’s type of cancer had about an 80 percent chance of the cancer recurring,” explained Dr. Krag. “With a new drug called Herceptin and chemotherapy, the chance of recurrence dropped to about 10 percent.” Grillo Vitale stayed strong throughout her treatment by eating healthy, exercising at the Salem YMCA at least two hours a day and playing with her son. “The Salem Y community embraced me, and along with my family and the staff at the NSMC Cancer Center, I got the support I needed to get through this,” said Grillo Vitale.

Two years after her battle with cancer, Susan Grillo Vitale turned to NSMC plastic surgeon David Wages, M.D., to reconstruct her breast. “In Susan’s case, we took muscle from her stomach and used that to reconstruct a new breast,” says Dr. Wages.  Vitale was “amazed with the result. I could barely even tell it was not my original breast.” After the reconstruction surgery, she finally felt healed and was ready to see life through a new perspective.