Dr. Nan Van Den Bergh's story of survival

Nan Van Den Bergh, Ph.D., was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 3, 2003.

“I was six months late in getting a regularly scheduled breast exam and had been putting off the mammogram because of too many work-related responsibilities,” she recalls.  “I felt a lump in my breast and contacted my primary care provider. She performed a clinical breast exam and indicated it was very important to get a mammogram, as soon as possible.

“I scheduled the mammogram at North Shore Hospital but when I arrived, was told it needed to be re-scheduled. Not wanting to wait, I got a referral to Dr. Vilma Biaggi in Aventura. She saw me and did a mammogram and ultra-sound, and biopsy in the office. She advised that it appeared I had breast cancer and may have to lose my breast to save my life.

“The biology of my tumor was such that my oncologist, Dr. Elizabeth Tan Chiu, suggested it might shrink in size by the use of an aromatase inhibitor, which precludes estrogen ‘feeding’ the tumor.”

Within two months’ time, the tumor had shrunk such that she could avert a mastectomy and have a lumpectomy.

“Unfortunately,” she says, “a sentinel node biopsy indicated that I had one positive lymph node, which meant chemotherapy was necessary. I endured six months of chemotherapy and 35 radiation treatments. For five years I undertook hormone therapy to preclude the recurrence of breast cancer.”

The diagnosis of breast cancer was a shock, she says. “I am a healthy and active woman, who exercises regularly and has been very focused on a healthy diet. Since there was no family history, the perception was that I was a ‘least likely’ candidate.”

Being unpartnered, a relative newcomer to South Florida and with family 1,500 miles away, having a support group proved challenging. “But my mother, two of my former partners, plus a long-time friend, gave up weeks of their lives to help me. They all traveled from afar, including Upstate New York and California,” Dr. Van Den Bergh points out.

But the self-described lifelong feminist activist decided not to endure the disease “lying down.

“The day after I finished chemotherapy I boarded a plane for Washington D.C. to participate in the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s (NBCC) Annual Conference and Lobby Day. Through that event, I became an activist with both NBCC and the Florida Breast Cancer Coalition (FBCC). I wanted to take a stand against breast cancer by advocating on the national, state and local level. My survival strategy was to work from the creedo: ‘Women, don’t agonize…organize!’

“That activism led to the creation of a Florida non-profit organization, Area Resource and Referral Organization for Women (ARROW Inc., www.arrowlbt.org),” Dr. Van Den Bergh continues. “Our primary goals of ARROW are to offer outreach education to the LBT women’s community on preventing breast cancer and training healthcare providers in how to be culturally sensitive in their care of LBT women.”

Her advice to anyone diagnosed with breast cancer is to “take action.

“That means being an active healthcare consumer who brings questions to healthcare providers,” she says. “I would also recommend getting involved with breast cancer organizations such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, FBCC or others such as Gilda’s Club or ARROW Inc.

“Give back as a way of demonstrating gratitude for your own survivorship.”             Also go to support groups like Gilda’s Club.  The support that Gilda’s Club provides is unbelievable.  They are nurturing and sensitive to each individual, whether they may be in treatment or remission.

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