June is National Cancer Survivor Month, an opportunity for the nearly 17 million cancer survivors across the country to tell their stories, celebrate milestones, and recognize those who have supported them along the way.
Emily Alicea-Muñoz is an academic professional in the School of Physics and Georgia Tech alumna who graduated with her Ph.D. in physics in 2020. In October 2017, Alicea-Muñoz was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery one month later and finished radiation treatment in late February 2018.
"I've been cancer-free since then," she says, "so three years so far. Two years after the diagnosis, I was able to defend my dissertation — in my dissertation's 'dedication' page, I wrote 'I survived cancer. I can survive grad school.'"
Here, Alicea-Muñoz shares more on her experience with breast cancer, advice for supporting loved ones undergoing cancer treatments, and hopes for the future of cancer research:
What is one thing you wish you had known before you started treatment?
I wish I'd known more about breast cancer in general. I had many misconceptions about what breast cancer is and how it's treated, and it took a lot of reading and a lot of questions to my team of doctors for me to understand what was going on and how the treatment would make the cancer go away.
What was your biggest self-discovery or revelation after you were diagnosed?
Feeling simultaneous despair and anger. There was so much crying after I got diagnosed, but also anger in general, in a "why is this happening to me?" kind of way. I was only 36 years old at the time, so the thought kept popping into my head that I'm too young to be going through this, and yet, there I was.
I was also surprised at how suddenly all sorts of body image issues popped into my head. Not that I didn't have body image issues before, I had plenty of them, but I never really thought about the shape of my breasts, and I took their presence for granted. Being faced with the possibility of losing one or both breasts, or at least losing a portion of one breast, was very scary. I kept worrying that I would end up with "mutant-looking boobs," which is a phrase that had never before entered my mind.
What was the most difficult part of your journey and how did you overcome it?
There were many difficult parts in the journey. For a solid week after being diagnosed it seems all I could do was cry. Speaking with a breast cancer survivor helped, as she told me about her experience and assuaged some of my fears. Not knowing anything about breast cancer before being diagnosed made things so scary. Having an amazing team of doctors helped, and they all were very patient and answered my millions of questions. (I would arrive to appointments carrying my laptop and a text file open to a list of questions, usually numbering in the 20s or 30s, and ready to write down their answers.)
I had never before had surgery, so I was terrified leading up to my lumpectomy. There were so many needles — blood work, biopsies, IVs... and so much pain — from the biopsies, from the surgery. After surgery I had some nerve damage on my right shoulder (where lymph nodes were removed in surgery) and had to spend over a year in several rounds of physical therapy and occupational therapy. Radiation treatment left me so tired for so long, and the radiation burns were so painful and ugly looking. I was physically and mentally exhausted and unable to concentrate for months afterwards.
Throughout the entire ordeal I kept wanting to go back to normal, and once it was all over (active treatment, at least) I realized that there's no "going back." I had to get used to a "new normal" and that was very difficult. Therapy helped tremendously, and the support from my husband and my parents was essential. I don't even know how I would have coped with all of it without them by my side.
What advice would you give on how to best support a loved one going through cancer treatments?
Ask what they need and offer to help. It may be driving them to an appointment or going in with them because two sets of ears are better than one when you're asking lots of questions and getting a ton of medical information in a short amount of time.
It may be to bring them dinner once or twice, or lunch, or babysitting, or helping tidy-up the house. It could be just being there for them to listen — keep them company one afternoon, listen to what they have to say, acknowledge their feelings, and if necessary, be a shoulder to cry on.
How does it feel to be in remission?
At my first mammogram six months after treatment ended, I was terrified that they'd tell me "whoops, there's still cancer in there, need to go through it all again!" or that suddenly there would be a cancer in the other breast and I'd have to redo everything in the other side.
There was still anger and frustration, still a feeling of "why me, why now?". As time passed, these feelings started going away, and by now (three years after treatment) I can talk about it without feeling angry or sad — I can even joke about it. The fear is still there though — every November when I go for my mammogram, I worry that this will be the day they tell me it came back and I have to do it all over again.
What are your hopes for the future of cancer research?
As for research, my hopes are for easier/less invasive methods of detection (biopsies hurt, a lot), and medication-based alternatives to chemo and radiation — or at least, ways of minimizing their side effects.
I was lucky that I didn't have to go through chemo, but I had plenty of side effects from surgery and radiation anyway. A cancer preventative — a medication or injection or something that prevents you from getting cancer in the first place — would be a miracle and wonderful if it existed.