As a multi-sport athlete growing up, Allison Rebello loved being part of a team. Today, living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC), she credits three teams for helping her stay active and optimistic in the face of an incurable but treatable disease.
Rebello’s care team at Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), led by oncologist Nancy Lin, MD, provides her with personalized clinical therapy based on the latest research advances. Rebello, 45, also regularly swaps stories and advice with other women in EMBRACing Young and Strong, a community of younger MBC patients treated within the Susan F. Smith Center.
And, when she feels up to it, Rebello heads to the water and joins her teammates on the Paradise City Dragon Boat paddling squad, all of them also connected to cancer as survivors or supporters. Because metastatic breast cancer — also known as advanced or stage IV breast cancer — is so challenging a diagnosis, such camaraderie has proven vital for her.
“Allison’s experience exemplifies the importance of human connection,” says Lin, director of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Program at the Susan F. Smith Center. “She has found communities who understand first-hand what she is going through, and can both give and receive support.”
Just 36 when she felt a lump on her right breast in September 2011, Rebello was told by a primary care physician that it would “probably be nothing.” Her first-ever mammogram, however, revealed she in fact had invasive ductal breast cancer in her right breast. After heading to DF/BWCC for further tests, Rebello learned she also had cancer in her left breast.
Under Lin’s care at the Susan F. Smith Center, Rebello underwent a right-breast mastectomy and reconstruction, as well as a left-breast lumpectomy and radiation. Because Rebello lived and worked in western Massachusetts, far from Boston and DF/BWCC, Lin coordinated with a radiation oncologist in that region so Rebello could have her six weeks of daily radiation treatments close to home.
“Dr. Lin and her team have been amazing from the beginning,” says Rebello. “They were understanding of my situation as a younger patient who still wanted to work and live life fully, and they did what was necessary to make that possible.”
A few years later, in 2015, Rebello joined the newly-formed Paradise City Dragon Boat team. Dragon boats are long, fiberglass canoes that feature dragon heads and tails at their front and rear. Each is powered by 20 paddlers, a drummer, and a steer, and training and racing them with others touched by cancer was a transformative experience for Rebello. “On the water,” she says, “we are in total synchronicity.”
Betsy Powell, who coaches the Paradise City team, credits Rebello for helping it flourish.
“She was a team captain and at the heart of growing the Paradise City Dragons into who we are: a group of cancer survivors and supporters who bring their full spirit to the sport and, more importantly, to being positive, supportive teammates for each other,” Powell says.
For seven-and-one-half years Rebello was cancer-free. Then, in early 2019, she slipped on some ice, caught herself from falling, and heard a snap in her neck. She initially thought it was whiplash, but a CT scan on March 6, 2019 revealed a fractured vertebra — and what appeared to be cancer.
“Right then and there, in that little hospital in Western Mass., I got a call from Dr. Lin,” Rebello recalls. “The hospital had contacted her, and she got right back to me. When she said she could get me into DF/BWCC that same night, I immediately felt better.”
After MRIs, CT scans, and bone scans, Lin had devastating news for Rebello: The breast cancer had returned and metastasized (or spread) to her neck, spine, and hip, along with spots in her lungs and ribs. She would need neck surgery and months of physical therapy, as well as daily cancer therapy taken orally at home. Rebello responded well to the plan, and as of October 2020 is stable and feeling good.
“The oral treatment Allison is on stems in part out of research started years ago here at DF/BWCC,” explains Lin. “Ongoing research here and elsewhere gives me hope that we can stay a step ahead of her cancer.”
Although Rebello has had trouble paddling since her neck surgery, her dragon boat teammates still take her out on the water to soak up the experience. Her metastatic status, meanwhile, has led her to a new crew: fellow MBC patients in the EMBRACing Young and Strong community who meet up online through the EMBRACE and Young and Strong programs within the Susan F. Smith Center.
“It makes my day better to be with fellow patients,” says Rebello. “They make me strong, and I hope I do the same for them.”