Gigi Sadorra – a graphic artist and massage therapist in Charlotte – felt something odd during a breast self-exam this spring.

Since she turned 40, Sadorra – now 59 – has been diligent about getting annual mammograms. (Forty is the age at which doctors recommend most women should begin getting screening mammograms.)

But COVID kept her – and many others – away from screenings. She missed two years of mammograms. But the bump on her breast that “felt like a pimple” prompted her to call her primary care doctor, who referred her for a mammogram.

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‘Just 10 minutes out of your life’

Sadorra believes in mammograms. She just doesn’t enjoy them.

“I have small breasts, and getting a mammogram is uncomfortable,” she said. “When the machine compresses my breast, it hurts. But it’s just 10 minutes of your life. It’s no worse than getting a Pap test. I highly recommend them to all women over 40.”

Sadorra’s mammogram showed cancer – news she called “intense and overwhelming.” Because she acted so quickly, she was diagnosed at Stage 1. Her cancer was small, contained – meaning it hadn’t spread – and highly treatable.

Dr. Dipika Misra

“Gigi’s story is reflective of the importance of regular mammograms,” said her breast medical oncologist, Dr. Dipika Misra of the Novant Health Cancer Institute – Elizabeth in Charlotte. “She had an aggressive tumor, but finding it early meant she could be treated with a less intense chemotherapy regimen with fewer side effects.”

After the diagnosis

After the initial shock wore off, Sadorra was ready to “fix it.”

Dr. Amelia Merrill

That meant a lumpectomy – performed by her oncological breast surgeon, Dr. Amelia Merrill. And even though Sadorra’s cancer was caught early, she needed chemotherapy and other treatment to help ensure it doesn’t return. “Even with early detection, just cutting the cancer out isn’t enough,” Misra said. “With breast cancer, these cells get into the bloodstream – almost like an infection. By giving chemotherapy right after surgery, those microscopic cells can be eliminated with the therapy to prevent any chance of recurrence.”

Sadorra finished her 12 weekly chemotherapy infusions and started radiation, targeting her right breast, on Oct. 16.

Once she’s finished with radiation, she’ll get hormone therapy – an anti-estrogen pill – she’ll take daily for five years. “Estrogen-positive cells are tricky,” Misra said. “They can go dormant and hide for years. This maintenance therapy will reduce Gigi’s estrogen levels – her cancer was originally driven by estrogen – and help prevent the cancer from returning.”

A sisterhood

Sadorra grew close to some of the Novant Health team members caring for her. “They’re all very friendly,” she said. “And they’re all women; I feel connected to them, you know? Because having breast cancer – like a friend of mine said – is not really a club. It’s a sisterhood.”

During her chemo sessions, she’d be in a recliner at the infusion center for up to five hours at a time. Her sister flew in from New York to join her, and friends often asked to join – and sometimes did. But Sadorra really enjoyed going by herself – and sleeping.

“From the beginning … everyone’s been so helpful,” she said. “Even when I came to the infusion center by myself, I never felt alone because someone’s always coming over to ask how I’m doing. They’ve been amazing.”

And the support was just what she needed. “Chemo was the worst,” Sadorra said. She got nauseated during her first infusion. During her third, she had an allergic reaction to Paclitaxel, the type of chemotherapy she received.

“Although allergic reactions are rare, the infusion nurses are always prepared for them,” Misra said. “We give patients steroids and Benadryl, as a precaution, before their chemo. We’re monitoring them throughout, and a nurse practitioner is on hand in case someone does have a reaction. In Gigi’s case, we increased her dosage of steroids and Benadryl and administered the chemo more slowly to get her through all of the therapy she needed.”

Hair loss is one of chemo’s best-known and most-dreaded side effects. Sadorra devised a characteristically outlandish way to deal with, and even embrace, it. She got a mohawk. Once her hair started to fall out, she got a pixie.

While her hair is now at what she called the “peach fuzz” stage, she’s wearing a beanie.

‘I beat it!’

Fiercely independent, Sadorra didn’t tell anyone outside her family about her cancer. At first.

Every year on her birthday, she takes to Facebook to recap the previous year and share what she’s learned. This year, she used the occasion to announce her health news. On July 21, she shared:

“What has impacted me the most this past year? The scariest words one will ever hear: breast cancer. I never thought it would happen to me … But cancer came knocking … and totally disrupted my life! The good news is that I beat it!

"… Having a positive attitude and a crazy sense of humor is what got me through this, along with my amazing family and friends. Their unconditional love and support are the root to my strength ...

“This year’s lesson: ‘Get busy living, or get busy dying’ … And ladies, please get your annual mammogram and do self-checks in between. That’s how I found mine! Life is short, baby. Live your best life NOW ‘cause you are not guaranteed tomorrow.”

“It was good to share the news,” she said. “People started reaching out, and I joked with some: ‘It took cancer to get you to pick up the phone?’”

She put aside massage therapy (“it’s too strenuous”) while undergoing treatment. She was able to keep up with her graphic design business, which was fortunate for several reasons, including that work made her feel normal.

So did honoring family traditions.

Sadorra’s family takes a vacation to Hilton Head every year, and her sister hires a photographer to get a group photo on the beach. Sadorra considered skipping it; she didn’t want to be bald in the pictures. But then she thought of her nieces and nephews – Vernon, Gabe, Sophie, Jordan and Emerson – and recalled her role as “the cool aunt.”

“What kind of aunt would I be if I missed the family trip?” she asked herself. She went – and loves the photos.

Sadorra has already become an ambassador to the newly diagnosed. A friend recently learned she has breast cancer. “I call her every day to check in,” Sadorra said. “I’ve been through this, and I remind her she’ll get through it, too.”

She shares advice, sprinkled with humor, with others facing cancer: “Go through the emotions. Allow yourself to feel it all. But don’t stay there. You’ve got to keep a positive attitude to get through this … without wanting to kill someone.”

Another nugget of advice for cancer patients: Take someone with you to doctors’ appointments. “All the information coming at you is overwhelming,” she said. “Choose a point person to come to your appointments and take notes. And if your person sends a text or email to your friends with updates, that saves you from having to tell the story repeatedly.”

She’s also gentle with herself these days. “I listen to my body,” she said. “I rest when I need to and don’t push myself. You have to remind yourself that you’re not lazy; your body has been through a lot. Chemo tires you. I’d get so fatigued from it that I couldn’t make myself get off the couch.”

Her last piece of advice isn’t surprising, given what mammography did for her. She said, “Now, I push all my friends to do monthly self-exams and to get their mammograms faithfully every year.”