The fight of her life
Girard woman becomes expert through her own breast-cancer journey
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories about breast cancer survivors that will run throughout October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
GIRARD — Lucia Martuccio said she is embarrassed to admit how much she didn’t know about breast cancer before her own diagnosis in July 2019.
“I mean, 1 in 8 women will be affected by it, and I was so uneducated,” Martuccio, 40, said. “The doctor told me I had triple-negative breast cancer, and I thought that was a good thing.”
Turns out, triple-negative breast cancer is the worst because it grows and spreads faster, has limited treatment options and a worse prognosis than other types of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of all breast cancers and refers to the fact that the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors and also don’t make too much of the protein called HER2. (The cells test “negative” on all three tests.)
These cancers tend to be more common in women younger than age 40, who are African American, or who have a BRCA1 mutation. Martuccio was 39 when she was diagnosed, but she had no other risk factors other then her paternal grandmother had breast cancer in the 1980s.
Martuccio’s journey began at 11:30 p.m. July 29, 2019. She said she was talking to a friend on the phone — which is how she knew the exact time — and was filling her bathtub when she started getting undressed and felt something strange on her left breast as her hand brushed against it while taking off her bra. She immediately did a self-exam.
“I felt a lump and thought to myself, ‘this can’t be happening.’ I told my friend and she told me to call the doctor first thing in the morning,” Martuccio said.
She described the lump feeling squishy. It was crescent shaped, similar to the way an orange slice feels after it is peeled.
“I thought,’this feels big. How did I not notice it before?'” she said.
Because she was 39 and doctors usually don’t recommend regular mammograms until age 40, she had never had one, but she always went to her annual gynecological appointments in March. At her appointment in 2019, her doctor made her promise she would have a mammogram the following year because Martuccio turned 40 in April of this year.
“I told her I would have it done before my appointment in March,” Martuccio said. “I ended up having one even sooner.”
After the mammogram, her gynecologist told her the lump was pretty large but since it was squishy and not hard, she thought it could be a cyst and recommended it be drained. Martuccio went to Southwoods Surgical Center on Aug. 5, 2019, and after having an ultrasound and mammogram, the nurse ran out of the room and came back with five people.
“I knew that was not a good sign,” she said.
Martuccio had a biopsy on her left breast and her lymph nodes and was told to call Southwoods for the results. The doctor called her instead and said Martuccio had invasive ductal carcinoma, and they would call her the following Monday to further discuss the results.
Once she got the triple-negative diagnosis, she opted to go to the Cleveland Clinic because her friend worked in radiology there and was able to get her an appointment right away. Tests showed Martuccio had lumps on her right breast too, but they were benign. The tumor on her left breast grew twice its size since her initial biopsy about 10 days before, and the cancer had infected eight lymph nodes.
The doctor in Cleveland recommended an aggressive chemotherapy regimen of four “red devil” chemo pills, which is the most potent chemo drug on the market, followed by four doses of taxol, which is the most common.
“After my first treatment of red devil, my mouth tasted like it had dirty quarters in it, I had a hard time swallowing and the usual bowel issues. Plus I lost my hair after the second dose,” Martuccio said. “Oh, and it sent me into menopause. I walked around the grocery store with frozen hash browns packages on my chest because of the hot flashes.”
The taxol caused her to lose her eyebrows and eyelashes, as well as her fingernails and toenails and she developed neuropathy in her fingers and toes. After her third treatment of taxol, she passed out in the driveway, so her doctor stopped the chemo and said she was ready for her mastectomy.
“I had my surgery Jan. 3, and the doctor held my hand as I went in and told me when I woke up, I would be cancer free. I cried when she said that,” Martuccio said.
However, she still had to have radiation. The doctor removed her left breast and all her lymph nodes — 23 of the 28 were cancerous. She had surgery in her armpit to keep her arm from getting stiff and has to go to physical therapy because she does not have full range of motion.
She had an expander inserted after her first round of radiation to balance her breasts, but it got infected and she had to have it removed. Her surgery was scheduled for March 11, which is when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything, so her family could not be with her. Because of the setback, she had to start radiation again and afterward, she planned to start having reconstructive surgery on Sept. 25. However, she had a full hysterectomy July 9 because the chance of her cancer returning somewhere else is very high and the most likely areas are blood, bone, brain, lungs and ovaries, her doctor told her.
Her reconstructive surgery now is planned for January. It will involve four surgeries, with one every three months. She works in sales for a salon supplier and was furloughed during the height of COVID-19, but she still had insurance and has since been called back to work.
“I find that having a positive attitude helps. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried over this,” Martuccio said. “I am a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns type of person and because I am single with no children, I can focus on myself and getting better. My faith is bigger than my fear.”
Martuccio is a 1998 graduate of Girard High School and is a member of St. Rose Church. She is the youngest of five children.
“I have a great support system, and I feel bad for the patients who don’t,” she said.
Martuccio said her doctor told her the life expectancy for someone with triple-negative breast cancer is five years, and it takes about two-and-a-half years for the cancer to rear itself in another place. But Martuccio said she is not about to give up.
“I come from a family of fighters. This is what we do. We have stuff happen, and we overcome. That is my plan.”