KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Rita Saltarelli had recently finished breastfeeding her last child in May 2022 when she felt a lump in her breast that she thought was a plugged duct.
That first symptom was quickly followed by visible changes to her skin in the same area, which gave her a sinking feeling she had breast cancer.
“I think it’s funny, people often say the day they were diagnosed was the worst day of their life. It wasn’t a good day, but for me, the news kept getting worse,” she said.
The bad news was that her fear was confirmed — she did have breast cancer. The worse news was that it was Inflammatory Breast Cancer.
Tuesday, Oct. 3 is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Day, which coincides with Breast Cancer Month. Although there are variations of this type of cancer, it is extremely rare, and therefore more difficult to treat. MD Anderson Cancer Center calls it the most aggressive type of breast cancer, representing only 1% to 5% of all breast cancer cases in the country. Despite the small number of cases, it still makes up about 10% of the deaths from breast cancer in the U.S.
Saltarelli was painfully aware of these numbers as she watched her normal life, with three kids and a husband, take a sudden, jarring turn. Scans revealed the cancer was in her spine, and was generally much bigger than what she originally thought.
“When I would ask questions, everyone would kind of dodge them. Or they would say, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry to tell you this,’ and they wouldn’t answer anything directly, like is this treatable? … I didn’t know anyone at the time who was living with breast cancer like that so in my mind, it was like a death sentence,” she explained.
An experience in her family with a different type of cancer led her to take her care somewhere else. In 2017, Saltarelli’s dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and told by a local oncologist the best they could do was keep him comfortable.
But Saltarelli knows a lot about medicine and didn’t accept that answer. She has been a nurse in Kalamazoo for 12 years, so she started asking around about where to go for the best cancer care. Numerous health care professionals recommended MD Anderson.
“My mom and I dragged him on the plane that first day, and he went through all of his treatments there,” she said. That was seven years ago, and her dad is still alive and living a normal life.
It’s no surprise then, that when doctors gave her a similar prognosis, Saltarelli turned to MD Anderson again. They had her scheduled for scans and other tests within days, and an appointment with a team of more than a dozen providers. She went from feeling like she’d been handed a death sentence, to feeling something new: hope.
“The doctor said, ‘We reviewed your case and you fit the profile of a long-term survivor.’ He said everything looks really good for you right now, and I asked him if we were looking at the same chart,” Saltarelli explained.
It was the first positive thing anyone had said to her in two weeks, and she left that appointment feeling lighter.
In the months that followed, Saltarelli spent a lot of time in Houston, Texas, going through specialized treatment to fight her cancer. Some of it she could do at home, including her chemotherapy rounds, but other treatments, like the radiation, she had to complete on site. That included 44 days of radiation therapy, followed by a radical mastectomy, which was a surgery to remove her entire breast and lymph nodes.
She is now going through maintenance care, which includes taking pills and going for certain shots and injections to keep her healthy and keep the cancer at bay. Saltarelli felt it was important to share her story now, to make sure other women don’t accept the first message from a health care team as the final word.
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave any stone unturned, any questions behind. If I wasn’t going to be here, I wanted my kids to know that I did everything I could to stay,” said Saltarelli.
Her care team at MD Anderson has encouraged her not to think about her life in terms of the number of years she may or may not have left, but to keep working to stay healthy and enjoy every moment.
Her birthday in 2022 was spent mostly in bed, unable to stand on her own, thinking she wouldn’t make it another trip around the sun. This June, she, her husband, and their kids celebrated her 34th birthday at the beach, dancing with the waves.
“I wasted a lot of time in the beginning grieving what I lost here and there … At some point, you have to shift your mind to enjoy what you have today. To love today.”