Surviving breast cancer: Lessons learned

Aug 18, 2009 at 11:11 a.m. ET

When Eloise Caggiano joined the Avon Foundation for Women in early 2008 as program director for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, she brought a special connection with her to the role. In 2005 at age thirty-three without any family history of cancer, Caggiano was diagnosed with breast cancer. On her journey to becoming a breast cancer survivor, she is grateful for the lessons she has learned.

Eloise Caggiano

Follow your gut feeling

Five surgeries later, four months of chemo, losing both her left breast and her signature long hair, Caggiano came out a survivor. "I was thirty-three when I was diagnosed, with no family history," she says. Essentially, Caggiano was a smart, persistent patient and went with her gut. After the lump was found, she went to the gynecologist, who quickly dismissed it. "They made me feel a little silly about it," the breast cancer survivor claims.

Persistence pays off

Next, she had a sonogram to see there was fluid in it. She waited six months for her appointment and the doctor said she was fine but it was agreed upon to take out the lump. Next, she saw a surgeon and without getting into too many medical details or the 10-month journey to being a breast cancer survivor, she knew something was off kilter. "In my gut I wanted it out…deep down my body knew something wasn't right. It said, 'Hey, pay attention, you need to deal with this'."

Surviving breast cancer is a great feat

Caggiano's breast cancer was fortunately caught in the early stages with aggressive treatment. Since Caggiano was young and strong, she was able to handle chemotherapy and the mindset was "let's do it now to ensure it doesn't come back." As for lessons learned? "It was not fun at all and was scary but I learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of," says Caggiano. "I've never been faced with anything this big."

Reach out to others and let them in

Eloise Caggiano at NYC MarathonUsually a private person, Caggiano realized this was the wake-up call and opportunity to rely on her support system. "I wasn't so sure I could do this by myself and it's not fair to shut people out," she explains. As an adjustment to handling things privately, she decided to share her journey with her inner circle, including her employer. At the time, she worked for a PR agency. Caggiano recalls, "They were a tremendous help and so supportive; it was very important for me to keep working. There was so much out of my control that it was a distraction."

Happy breast cancer-versary!

Caggiano found that her family and friends rallied around her, and as a thank you to them, every year on her anniversary of being cancer-free (designated on the day of her last chemo treatment), she sends them a gratitude e-mail. Essentially she thanks her loved ones and the happiness they bring to her life. To mark her four-year "cancer-versary" this August, she was getting quite enchanted with thinking about what to say this particular year.

Putting the experience to good use

Now, the breast cancer survivor's new role hits close to home. As program director for the Avon Foundation she notes, "I wouldn't have this job if I hadn't gone through that. It's so great to take my personal experience and put it to such good use now with this job." The weekend-long 39-mile walks occur in nine different cities across the country. "They're so much fun and inspirational!" adds Caggiano.

Between the opening and closing ceremonies, rest stops, overnight camp sites, wellness villages, it's all good. Overall, the walks also show everyone where the money is going (it's granted to cancer centers, education and awareness to ensure anyone facing diagnosis can get the care they need). The Avon Foundation program director passionately says, "We are spending the money wisely. We raise the money and then we give it away!"

Walk for a cause

Above all, the Avon Foundation walks bring people closer together. From 2003 to 2008, a total of $268 million has been raised. As for the best part of her job? Traveling to every walk. Caggiano concludes, "I meet so many amazing people, we bond, become friends. There's such a sense of community and support."

For more information on the Avon Foundation walks, visit

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