An ER coordinator. A teacher. A fitness instructor.
These three mothers in South Florida have one thing in common: They’re breast cancer survivors.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States, excluding skin cancers. It strikes 1 of 8 U.S. women in their lifetime and 42,000 women die from it every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New research on how to better detect and treat breast cancer is frequently conducted across the globe, including in South Florida, though mammograms are still considered one of the most effective ways to detect cancer early.
And while the journey to recovery is a long and complicated one, breast cancer patients have described finding support, not just with their family and doctors, but with a sisterhood of breast cancer patients.
“It is a very special privilege to be able to take this journey with women and to walk them through arguably the most difficult diagnosis in their life, to talk about how the impact of that diagnosis changes the family dynamic, as well as their own personal outlook on their future,” said Dr. Lauren Carcas, a medical oncologist at Baptist Health’s Miami Cancer Institute in Plantation.
That sense of sisterhood has also pushed breast cancer survivors to find ways to give back to the community, to advocate for self-care and let others know they are not alone.
Here are their stories:
She’s helping women get free mammograms
With her kids off to college, widow Angela “Angie” Taylor was ready to start a new chapter in her life, moving from Baltimore to South Florida.
The program coordinator for ER residents at Aventura Hospital and Medical Center had just returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic when she felt a lump in her breast.
Her doctor scheduled a mammogram and then a biopsy. Within a few days, the diagnosis was in: Taylor had triple-negative breast cancer, one of the more aggressive forms of breast cancer.
Taylor, who has a family history of cancer, also was diagnosed with a BRCA gene mutation that increases her risk of breast cancer, said Carcas, who treated her at Baptist’s Miami Cancer Institute in Plantation.
Taylor started her treatment immediately — 12 sessions of chemo, each more than four hours long. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy. She remembers chemo made her whole body ache. Everything tasted like metal, like “dirty coins.” She lost weight; her hair fell out.
Prior to every treatment, she would cry for eight minutes.
“Eight minutes is long enough to just break down and feel sorry for myself and then jump back up and keep moving, you know,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s challenges led her to a new passion: Helping uninsured and underserved women in Miami-Dade and Broward counties get the support to screen for breast cancer, and if they’re diagnosed, helping them through it.
“I just believe we all have angels surrounding us, and we all can be an angel to someone else,” Taylor said.
The 54-year-old breast cancer survivor now runs a nonprofit, ARTfullAngels, which helps uninsured and underserved women get free mammograms. If the women are diagnosed with breast cancer, the nonprofit will help them find affordable health insurance. The nonprofit also serves as a support group.
ARTfullAngels has helped 19 women get a free mammogram since incorporating as a nonprofit in 2019, Taylor said. Four of the women were diagnosed with breast cancer and got help in getting insurance. At least one was undocumented.
One of her Angels — that’s what Taylor calls the women she helps — was diagnosed with breast cancer at 74. Taylor helped with her mammogram, stayed in contact with her throughout her treatment and was there when she became “this beautiful, cancer-free butterfly.”
Taylor is hosting a variety of events this month to raise funds for more mammograms.
One of the fundraisers, a “Sip & Dine” event, will be from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Oct. 18 at Rendezvous Bar & Grill in Fort Lauderdale. ARTfullAngels will also host a fundraiser from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Miramar Cultural Center, which will feature artwork created during the pandemic by breast cancer patients.
At the event, Taylor will honor Dr. Gary Rosenbaum, chief of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, WPLG Local 10 Anchor Janine Stanwood, who is a breast cancer survivor, and Carol Margolis, director of the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation.
People interested in attending the fundraisers, finding out about other events or making a donation can visit artfullangels.org
‘Don’t delay your mammogram’
Marlen Acosta-Garcia got her first mammogram at 40. The next year, she delayed it. And delayed it. And delayed it.
This went on for several years until Acosta-Garcia moved from Orlando to Miami to care for her parents. Acosta-Garcia was accompanying her father to the doctor when a thought crept into her mind: “I need to make an appointment.”
She did, and within a matter of weeks, she was diagnosed with triple-negative stage 1 breast cancer, an aggressive cancer. It was a shock. Her family has a history of heart conditions, not cancer.
“I honestly feel that if I would have done my yearly mammograms like I was supposed to, I could have caught this even earlier,” Acosta-Garcia said. “I wouldn’t have had to have done chemo. … That was on me because I didn’t get my mammogram.”
The mother of four started her cancer treatment just weeks after her August 2019 diagnosis. The former criminal defense attorney was scared, but positive she would be OK. Her faith and loved ones were with her every step of the way.
“It kept me going,” she said.
She never went to chemo alone; a family member always went with her. Acosta-Garcia, who is now a high school teacher and assistant volleyball coach at Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami Lakes, found support in coworkers who’d experienced their own bout with cancer. Her students grew closer to her too.
Her volleyball players even surprised her with a custom-made shirt, telling the world to “Block out cancer.”
The support pushed Acosta-Garcia to become more open about her diagnosis. She wrote about her experiences on Facebook and inspired several other women to get mammograms.
Now, at age 49, the cancer survivor hopes her story will serve as an example of why people shouldn’t delay their check-ups.
“I really wanted to get the word out. Sometimes as moms, you know, as professionals, we kind of put ourselves last. We take care of everybody else and not take care of ourselves. And you know, we’re the glue that holds the family together. We need to make sure that we’re 100%,” Acosta-Garcia said.
‘Just keep walking forward’
“Mommy, are you happy?”
Joanah “Canela” Bodero paused, surprised by her 5-year-old daughter’s question.
Was she happy?
Here she was, lying on the couch, exhausted after working her usual 12-13 hour shift at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.
The question was a turning point. After 14 years of working at the hospital, the physician assistant left her job to focus on a new business with her husband: Ocean Life Studio, a fitness and wellness center in Miami Beach.
They opened the studio in February 2020, with a catalog of fitness classes and wellness services such as massages, acupuncture and dietary guidance. Four weeks after opening, COVID-19 forced the studio to close as Miami-Dade County went into lockdown.
When the studio reopened in July 2020, people were hesitant about exercising, so Bodero changed her business model and began offering COVID tests at the site too. Then it got complicated.
She was diagnosed with stage two invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.
The results came in when she was in the midst of teaching a kids’ class. By the end of the class, Bodero, 45, was in tears and having a “mini panic attack.”
For six years, Bodero had helped care for breast cancer patients. Now, she was one of them. She was terrified.
“Your mind goes to the worst-case scenario,” she said.
Bodero dipped into her savings to help maintain her family and her cancer treatments. After one of her medical consultations, she broke down crying when she saw the bill. A GoFundMe page helped cover her treatments.
On Christmas Eve, Bodero underwent surgery to remove her cancer, alone in the hospital due to COVID’s no-visitation policies.
Bodero had a double mastectomy and turned to Dr. Joshua Lampert, an aesthetic and reconstructive plastic surgeon in Aventura, to reconstruct her breasts. He used a fat-grafting technique that pulls fat from other parts of the body and a nipple-sparing technique so she could keep her nipples.
Lampert said this type of surgery usually works best for patients who detected their cancer early.
“When a woman has successfully undergone breast cancer treatment, fought back, battled cancer and won, well, it is just an amazing experience to be a part of that,” Lampert said. “When a woman has had a mastectomy, been through it all and can go back to her life and still wear that evening dress, bikini, or bathing suit with confidence, it justifies all the steps it sometimes takes to get them there.”
Now, months later, Bodero is teaching classes at the studio and still offering COVID testing.
The cancer survivor hopes to one day open another studio, this time in her hometown of New York City, and eventually one in Colorado, one of her family’s favorite places to go mountain biking and snowboarding.
And after a year of riding “waves,” Bodero has a message for women who are facing their own bout of cancer:
“I’m not gonna lie, it was challenging. But, you know, just think there’s light at the end of the tunnel … just keep walking forward.”
South Florida Breast Cancer Awareness events
Here are some of the events happening this month:
▪ “Rebirth,” the 10th annual Mammography Initiative art show and auction, founded by Florida International University medical students.
Funds raised support the Mammogram Initiative, which provides free mammograms, diagnostic services and breast health education to underserved women of Miami-Dade County.
When: 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15
Where: Women’s Club of Coconut Grove, 2985 S. Bayshore Drive, Coconut Grove. The event will be livestreamed.
Cost: In-person ticket minimum suggested donation $20. Virtual ticket minimum suggested donation $12. If you cannot donate and would like to attend, contact Richard Suarez at firstname.lastname@example.org
To get tickets and to learn more, visit medicine.fiu.edu/art/
▪ Susan G. Komen MORE THAN PINK Walk
When: Saturday, Oct. 16. Registration opens at 7 a.m. Opening ceremony at 9 a.m. Walk starts at 9:15 a.m.
Where: Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd.
Visit www.Komen.org/MiamiWalk to sign up for the walk, create a team, and begin fundraising.
▪ Pack the Pews in Pink
305PinkPack will host a fundraiser at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Miami Beach. The church will match donations made that day up to $1,000.
When: 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 17
Where: All Souls’ Episcopal Church, 4025 Pine Tree Drive, Miami Beach
▪ “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” Walk, presented by Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center
When: Saturday, Oct. 23. Check-in begins at 7 a.m. Due to COVID, the walk has a rolling start time to avoid crowding. You can start the walk between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
Where: LoanDepot Park, formerly Marlins Park, 501 NW 16th Ave. in Little Havana
Visit makingstrideswalk.org/miamifl to sign up for the walk, create a team and begin fundraising.
▪ “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” Walk in Broward County, presented by Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino-Hollywood
When: Saturday, Oct. 23. Check-in begins at 7:15 a.m. Opening ceremony starts at 8 a.m. Due to COVID, the walk will have a rolling start to avoid crowding. People can start between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.
Where: Huizenga Plaza, 32 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Visit makingstrideswalk.org/browardfl to sign up for the walk, create a team and begin fundraising
▪ The Greater Miami USBC “Rolling Toward a Cure” Tournament benefiting the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation
When: Sunday, Oct. 24. Bowling starts at 9:30 a.m. There will be a youth division and adult division.
Where: Bird Bowl Bowling Center, 9275 SW 40th St.
Cost: Entry fee $47
For information and to register, visit gmusbc.com
▪ Breast Cancer Awareness and Education Webinar by Sharsheret and the Miami Cancer Institute
Sharsheret, a nonprofit that specializes in breast and ovarian cancer in young women and Jewish families, is partnering with the Miami Cancer Institute for a webinar discussing the origins, treatments and medical advances for breast and ovarian cancer.
When: 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Oct. 27
The link to RSVP for the free webinar can be found through the Greater Miami Jewish Federation calendar at https://jewishmiami.org/events/
▪ ARTfullAngels Breast Cancer Fundraising Event featuring “Art-In-Lockdown” exhibition curated by Alina Ko. The reception will have live music, an open bar, a silent auction and hors d’oeuvres.
When: 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Oct. 28
Where: Miramar Cultural Center, 2400 Civic Center Place
Cost: $25. Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite.