By Jo Kadlecek Correspondent
The Salem News
---- — Jill Moriello used to have long, black, curly hair — “beach bum hair,” she likes to call it. Hair that once hung to her waist and, in some ways, defined her as a person. Losing it was one of the hardest parts of the chemotherapy and radiation she received just weeks after she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
Stares were the other hard part.
“Not the looks from strangers, I could handle those,” Moriello said. “But the stares from my family members — seeing their concern, that was hard.”
But Moriello is an optimist with a quick sense of humor. She’s the kind of woman who, even after she found a lump the “size of a Good & Plenty candy” on her left breast in August 2011, thought it was “no big deal.” At 37 years old, the Saugus-raised resident and 1997 graduate of Salem State University believed she was too young to have breast cancer.
Even so, she knew enough to call her doctor, who told her to come in right away. But with a 60-to-70-hour-a-week job as a development grants manager with financial responsibilities for her company, she was looking forward to a planned, and much-needed, vacation out of the country. She’d come in, she told the doctor, when she returned.
It’s a good thing she did. Moriello is proof positive of the need for early detection and expert care. Though her lump was obvious, the mammogram was inconclusive, and the doctor used ultrasound and a biopsy to determine whether it was cancerous. It was.
“A young woman who finds a mass in self-exams is not typical,” said Dr. Kristin Smith, a surgeon at the Beverly Hospital Breast Care Center who treated Moriello. “Usually this type of cancer is found in women in their 50s and 60s, so we have to take very seriously any situation like this.”
A week after the biopsy, Smith called Moriello at work and asked to schedule an appointment. But Moriello wanted the news right then. She’d lost her father, a Saugus High School girls soccer coach, to lung cancer only four years earlier, and she’d just put a deposit on a house. She was busy at work and didn’t have time or energy for another challenge.
“That’s when it hit me, and I instantly thought, of course I could come in,” she said. “I hung up and started crying, which is not a good thing because you don’t want to see the fiscal people crying. They’ll think something’s wrong with the company.”
She went home early and waited until later that night to tell her sister and brother-in-law. A few days later, she met with Smith.
“She’s young with a vibrant, healthy outlook on life — which helped a lot — and wanted to know her options right away. We laid out a game plan as to what choices she had and what steps we could take,” Smith said. “Her attitude was, let’s do what we have to do, let’s get it done.”
So on Sept. 20, 2011, Moriello was in surgery for a partial mastectomy, sometimes called a lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery. The procedure was one day and also required removing sentinel lymph nodes. Moriello went home still optimistic and confident that the cancer was “out of my body. I thought I’d be fine.”
The bad news came when Smith informed her that one of the five nodes had cancer and she’d need additional attention. The good news was that Smith’s team — which included oncologist Harriet Bering, radiation oncologist Eugene Wong, and nurse practitioner Kim Willis, who is a breast patient navigator at the Breast Care Center — all had clear schedules the next Monday afternoon. That meant they could read her results together, review her case and come to a consensus about what to do next.
Moriello began eight rounds of intravenous chemo for 16 weeks, followed by seven weeks of daily radiation. Her hair fell out, and her energy flagged. She joined an online support group for women and men with triple-negative cancer. By this time, too, she had closed on her house and was renovating it, knocking down walls and ripping up floors.
“It was therapeutic. I couldn’t worry about how the house was going because I had something bigger to worry about,” she said. “In the midst of it all, I found out what was really important.”
In August, a full year after her diagnosis, Moriello met again with Smith and Bering, who told her she was cancer-free. Her prognosis is good, with a 90 percent success rate. Other survivors call it “dancing with NED” — no evidence of disease.
Now she wants to give back. She’s back at work full time, but working “only 40 hours a week.” And she’s eager to tell others about being a survivor; in fact, she’s scheduled to speak at the Breast Care Center on Monday, Oct. 22, to a group of newly diagnosed patients. She also expects to run this year in a variety of 10K fundraising races for cancer research.
“I came face to face with my own mortality, but I thought, I’m not ready for that. I’m ready to live,” she said. “This made me see things differently, even though I’m always one to be optimistic. When a friend calls and asks to go to coffee, I’m not too busy. You tell people you love that you do.”
Moriello’s recovery, according to Smith, is a result of new research and advances in cancer treatment that can give hope to others diagnosed with this disease.
“Regardless of anyone’s age, young or old, breast cancer does have a new face. It’s one of survivorship,” she said. “It’s still a scary diagnosis, but there are more treatments available, so that now we talk a lot more about surviving than ever before.”