Saschelle Mandoza’s emotions were swirling, and it was hard to take in what she was hearing: She had breast cancer – seven distinct masses in her left breast. “I was only 32,” she says of that overwhelming moment in December 2019. “The left side was completely full of tumors. I thought, ‘This just takes the cake.’”
She had reason to strike a note of exasperation. She’d already had two tough previous years during which symptoms such as achy joints, muscle weakness, migraines, dizziness and blurred vision had convinced her that something was wrong. It turned out there were multiple somethings. And she had no idea that restrictions from the coming COVID-19 pandemic would pose further challenges.
Evolving medical problems
In August 2018, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study discovered Mandoza had a brain tumor along with a brain aneurysm – a bulging blood vessel that poses a risk for bursting and bleeding. The tumor was benign, and the aneurysm wasn’t yet large enough to treat, so both would need to be monitored.
A month later came a bigger blow: Mandoza was diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disease, an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue such as joints. “When I have a flare-up, I can barely get out of bed,” she says. Medication helps keep her symptoms under control.
Meantime, Mandoza was furthering her education. She had completed a two-year program at Lehigh Carbon Community College and was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in corporate communications at Penn State Lehigh Valley.
Then a new symptom began bothering Mandoza: left breast pain. Tests that her rheumatologist ordered couldn’t explain it. After she happened upon a display about breast cancer and self-exams at Penn State, she detected a lump. A discussion with her gynecologist quickly led to an ultrasound, mammogram and multidisciplinary cancer clinic appointment at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute.
Resolved to beat cancer
“Usually when we see an abnormality in a young person, we’re able to do a lumpectomy, which is a small surgery,” says Heiwon Chung, MD, chief of Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute’s section of surgical oncology. “I had to deliver the news that Saschelle needed a mastectomy. It was a difficult meeting.”