Each year, Johnstown Magazine highlights some of the brave individuals who faced a breast cancer diagnosis and plowed their way through.
When Shannon Nicolof was given a breast cancer diagnosis, she decided to take what many would consider a radical approach.
The tumor was 5mm – not quite 1/4 inch – and although described as invasive, the cancer had not moved to the lymph nodes.
The usual approach would be to do a lumpectomy, but Shannon decided to have a double mastectomy.
“The decision was immediate for me and it did not change,” she says. “Because I couldn’t imagine going through the stress of a mammogram again after having breast cancer.”
Her doctor, Dr. Renee Arlow, did the double mastectomy Feb. 10, 2021.
Shannon says not everyone was supportive of her decision.
“There was one appointment when a medical resident asked me why I was getting a double mastectomy, because my cancer wasn’t very big.
“I had to justify the reason for the surgery to the resident and that should not happen because every woman has her own answers.”
Shannon says the cancer diagnosis was unexpected. She considers herself a physically active woman who has always been involved in athletics.
“During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, I was running 9-minute miles,” she says. “Fitness, health and nutrition have always been at the center of my universe.”
As a psychologist at Laurel Pediatric Associates, she has developed a strong immune system and says she has always been strong and rarely sick.
“There are no major surgeries or major illnesses in my personal or family history.”
Her grandfather’s wife, Emily Belle, died of breast cancer however, so Shannon was well aware of the risks.
“She’s the reason why I never miss a mammogram,” she says.
Her scans had always come back normal until December 2020 when Shannon was informed that something looked suspicious.
“In January, the amazing team at East Hills did the breast biopsy,” she says. “After that, it got complicated as there are a lot of options for those that get the breast cancer diagnosis.”
Shannon opted to have immediate breast reconstruction surgery, but concedes it is another decision that should be based on what a woman wants.
“The perky new breasts are fun for me, but they aren’t for everyone and the process of reconstruction includes an extra surgery and time,” she notes.
Shannon says making decisions that are right for the patient is an important component in the entire process of getting through breast cancer.
“The diagnosis and surgery and healing take time and whatever choices people make must be informed. The breast cancer patient can have genetic testing to determine if they will benefit from chemotherapy. The process of genetic testing also takes time and one needs to embrace mediation and other activities to stay healthy.
“Therapy and education were beneficial to my healing as I was able to teach my very part-time classes at the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College two weeks after my surgery,” she says. “Teaching was a great distraction. The students knew about the breast cancer because they had prerecorded lectures to utilize during my absence. (I don’t know if they noticed the pajamas during the first class.)
“There are some people who keep the diagnosis private and that’s another personal decision.
“The fact that my friends, family and co-workers knew about this was another way to communicate the importance of a mammogram.
“If the appointment for a mammogram was postponed, I might not be able to tell this story.”