Kaitlyn Zonfrelli thought she was too young to have breast cancer, even though she showed a common sign of the disease. Now that she’s in treatment, she wants to spread the word: Don’t ignore the signs, no matter what.
Two years ago, when she was 26, Zonfrelli felt a lump on her breast during a self-exam. The Cape Cod resident felt fine, and had no other breast cancer symptoms, so she ignored it as nothing and went on with her busy life of work, family, and friends.
Then, last year, she felt a bolt of pain under her arm—and found a lump there the size of a golf ball. This time she headed to the hospital, where subsequent tests revealed she had stage III breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
“I think about it all the time—why didn’t I get it checked sooner?” says Zonfrelli, who recently had chemotherapy in the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber. “Maybe if I went right to the doctor, they could have caught it at an earlier stage. Now I want everybody to know it’s never too early, and you’re never too young, to get yourself checked.”
Zonfrelli is slated to have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in mid-February, after which she will undergo physical therapy and other rehabilitation. This timing enables her to kick up her heels February 2nd at the ninth annual Dancing for a Cure 5K Dance Marathon at Mashpee (Mass.) High School. The all-ages event, which features performances by dancers of all ages, also serves as a homecoming of sorts for Zonfrelli. A competitive dancer as a teenager, she performed at many Dancing for a Cure events, including the dance marathon, in its first years.
“The fact that Kait was once on our stage dancing her heart out to help fight the disease she’s now fighting sends an important message,” says Susan Mendoza Friedman, founder of Dancing for a Cure and also a board member of the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “I think all of us, when in our twenties, think that nothing can touch us. Young women, and young men, need to be proactive when any sign or potential sign presents itself.”
It’s important to know your family’s cancer history, Zonfrelli also notes. Her grandmother, who died of ovarian cancer, had the BRCA genetic marker that puts one at greater risk for that disease and breast cancer. When the family learned this after her death, other family members underwent genetic testing. Zonfrelli’s father, aunt, older sister, and a cousin were all identified as BRCA carriers.
“Talk to your family as early as you can, especially about genetic testing,” says Zonfrelli. “Finding out you have a mutation like BRCA is important to know so you can take early prevention more seriously. Know your body and be aware of the risks.”
Zonfrelli’s chemotherapy regimen at Dana-Farber took place on a clinical trial for women with breast cancer and a BRCA mutation overseen by her oncologist, Judy Garber, MD, MPH. The trial includes a chemotherapy drug not typically used for breast cancer that has had more activity in women with BRCA mutations in other Dana-Farber trials.
As she recovers from surgery and continues with chemotherapy near her Cape Cod home, Zonfrelli will also continue spreading the word—and closely reacting to any other potential warning signs her body gives her.
“Kait is a real fighter,” says Garber, who also cared for Zonfrelli’s late father, who died in 2013. “She understands not only the importance of treatment, but also of careful monitoring for young women who learn they have a BRCA mutation, for whom options for early detection and prevention start younger and are more intense than for women without such increased risk.
“Ultimately, the goal is prevention of breast and ovarian cancers, but the right treatment is certainly key when cancers do occur.”