As a busy wife, mother, and third-year family medicine resident at Overlook Medical Center, Natalie R. routinely put everyone else’s needs before her own … until a diagnosis of breast cancer turned the young doctor into a patient.
Natalie’s days were a delicate balancing act. Working long hours as a medical resident while taking care of a home, a young daughter, and a husband with health issues, left little time for herself.
In the back of her mind, she knew that a family history of breast cancer might catch up with her. At 18, Natalie and her sister tested positive for BRCA1, a genetic mutation that increases risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.
“It was a lot to process at the time,” says Natalie, who watched her mother successfully battle breast cancer at age 40, “but the information prompted me to start having regular mammogram and MRI screenings in my early 20s.”
Not Enough Hours in the Day
Natalie kept up to date on the screenings through medical school and the birth of her daughter, Penelope. During her residency program at Overlook, Natalie’s life became more hectic – with little time for sleep, let alone screenings. Her last clear mammogram was in 2017.
When Natalie felt a lump in her left breast in March 2019, she pushed it off, thinking that it was probably just like the benign cyst discovered earlier in her right breast. However, as the mass grew and she began losing weight and having night sweats, she visited Overlook’s Breast Center for a mammogram and ultrasound.
“I was focused on getting back to work that afternoon,” recalls Natalie. “But when the radiologist wanted to speak to me, I knew it wasn’t good.”
The Diagnosis and Treatment Plan
A subsequent biopsy led to the diagnosis – stage 2, invasive, intraductal breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Natalie remembers feeling devastated and angry. “It was my last year of residency, and I’d worked so hard. I was only 29! I wondered, ‘How am I going to balance this with everything else on my plate? I don’t have time to be sick.’”
Medical oncologist Bonni Guerin, MD, who directs breast cancer treatment and prevention at Overlook’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center, helped Natalie prepare herself physically and mentally for the journey ahead. The journey would entail 16 rounds of chemotherapy to help shrink the tumor in her breast and clear malignant lymph nodes of the disease; a double mastectomy and removal of 18 lymph nodes with breast surgeon Margaret Sacco, MD; reconstruction surgery with Eric Chang, MD; and 25 rounds of radiation under the guidance of Joana Emmolo, MD.
“Dr. Guerin related to me as a physician, a wife and a mother,” remarks Natalie. “She completely understood my stress level and helped me reevaluate my priorities. She made me realize that by taking care of myself, I would be better equipped to give others the best version of me.”
A Silver Lining
Taking Dr. Guerin’s advice to heart, Natalie and her family moved to her mother’s central New Jersey home, where she received much-needed maternal support during her months of treatment. Her residency program director allowed her to modify her work schedule during chemotherapy and take a temporary leave of absence following surgery.
“I went from helping everyone else to being completely dependent upon others during my recovery from surgery,” comments Natalie. But the role reversal had a silver lining.
“Ironically, it took a diagnosis of cancer to make me slow down, eat three meals a day, sleep longer, and achieve more balance in my life,” she reflects.
At 30, Natalie also developed a passion for the breast cancer community and has become an outspoken advocate for young patients like herself. She started a blog and has enjoyed sharing her experience with other young breast cancer patients through community speaking engagements. She has also given inspirational talks to high school women about the importance of breast cancer prevention through screening.
Although Natalie’s battle with breast cancer continues with the final stages of radiation treatment, she acknowledges that research is what gives her confidence in her cure and her daughter’s future. That’s why she is particularly proud to be chosen as an ambassador for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) – a role that has put her squarely in the forefront of a national campaign, including a half-page ad in the Sunday New York Times, informational videos, and fundraisers.
“These are my moments I would not change for anything,” says Natalie. “I have a new perspective on taking care of myself and being a good physician.”
Drs. Chang, Emmolo, Guerin and Sacco are part of Atlantic Medical Group, a multispecialty network of health care providers. Learn More >