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Breast Cancer Alliance

Ann Caruso, Stylist & 2x Breast Cancer Survivor

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Hearing the words, "You have breast cancer," is devastating. The floor drops beneath you; your mind snowballs with questions and fears. Now imagine powering through treatment and beating your bout with cancer, only to have the improbable happen—you hear the words again.

Recurrence isn't a subject often talked about, but it's a reality for anyone who has had breast cancer. The disease can creep back in the same place (local) or may spread to other areas, such as your liver or lungs (distant). On average, 7-11% of women with early-stage breast cancer will develop a local recurrence within the first five years after treatment. Those numbers can shoot up depending on genetics, stage and type of cancer.

But here's the silver lining: Studies show there are things you can do to help lower the risk, like changing your diet and exercising regularly. Taking care of your mental and emotional health are crucial, too—just ask fashion stylist and consultant Ann Caruso, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, underwent a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and endocrine therapy, and then saw the cancer return five years later. "I took everything minute by minute, day by day, which kept my mind off the scary things so I could stay in the present," she says. "We never know what the future will bring. Staying grateful for being alive is key."

Here, we talk to the two-time survivor.

Ann Caruso at Breast Cancer Alliance's annual luncheon, 2022

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What is the most important thing you want people to know about recurrence?
It is important to be your own advocate. If you feel like something is wrong, don’t settle. Keep going until you feel comfortable with your diagnosis. Once you get your diagnosis and it is cancer, I tell people it is so important to get second and third opinions when it comes to your treatment and care. I saw several surgeons, oncologists, and other specialists, and ultimately went with the ones whose approach I felt most comfortable with and who I knew were going to get rid of my cancer. Multiple opinions can also give you peace of mind because if three oncologists suggest the same treatment, you can be confident that’s the right way to go.

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Could you share the health or lifestyle changes you made pre- vs. post-cancer?
I was a very healthy eater before I had cancer—no wheat, dairy, very little sugar, no alcohol—and I exercised, took tennis and golf lessons and did yoga. I was able to keep it up during my first bout with cancer and do yoga right up until the surgery to open my chest wall up. I stayed in decent shape but, after multiple surgeries and infections, I wasn't able to exercise and do yoga like before. After my second diagnosis and more surgeries and radiation, it got worse for me. I did little things around the apartment while I brushed my teeth or did the dishes.
Today, my diet and what supplements I take are important—certain vitamins and foods can increase hormones that attract cancer. With the help of a doctor, I also take several vitamins that are preventative. Stretching and physical therapy continue to be important. I love to take walks, work out in the gym when I can, and I'm starting Pilates up again.
Rest and relaxation are key. If I don't have enough sleep, I can’t be my best self. Saying no to events can be hard but sometimes saying no is saying yes to yourself. I also believe in acupuncture, massage and becoming quiet with prayer, meditation or positive affirmations.

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“I am grateful for so many things and people in my life, but I am especially grateful to be alive!”

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Two breast cancer diagnoses, 12 surgeries, endocrine and radiation treatments… how did you persevere through it all?
I believe it’s important to take care of your spiritual health in addition to your physical self. There are so many decisions to make and, depending on your treatment schedule, it doesn't leave you with a lot of time. I took everything minute by minute, day by day, which kept my mind off the scary things so I could stay in the present. To help you navigate this turbulent time, have a team of people you trust taking care of you, have someone to talk to and bolster your spirit. Meditate, pray, read positive affirmations, move your body, watch funny movies and keep a journal.

What would you say to those facing a fear of recurrence?
We never know what the future will bring. I think trying to stay in the present kept me out of fear mode. Staying grateful for being alive is key. Write a list of 5-10 things you are grateful for every day that will automatically take you from fear to fearless. It can be very scary and the fear of cancer coming back is always there, especially when we feel sick, have pain, or right before having any medical appointment or scan done. Bring a friend with you to take your mind off it and give you comfort. Taking fun selfies is good, too. I now try to think of these appointments as self-care. By reframing them as "taking care of myself," I turn the trauma into a regular doctor or wellness appointment.

We just celebrated Thanksgiving. What are you thankful for?
I am grateful for so many things and people in my life, but I am especially grateful to be alive!

From left: Olympic champion Chaunté Lowe, Breast Cancer Alliance's Executive Director, Yonni Wattenmaker, and Ann Caruso at the 2022 BCA luncheon

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From now to the end of the year, we will donate a portion of proceeds from every single order to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Alliance, which is making an impact through major investments in early-stage research, fellowships, education and support. Learn more about the partnership here. #VBGIVESBACK

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