Patient Stories

Surviving and Thriving After HER2-Positive Breast Cancer

Aug. 31, 2022

Jill Schiaparelli is the CEO of a successful healthcare start-up company. Between her work and her family, she is always on the go. Early one morning as she prepared to leave for a business trip in late 2018, she discovered a lump in her breast while showering. 

She immediately knew that something was wrong. Less than 48 hours later, she had scheduled a diagnostic mammogram appointment at the breast imaging center located on the UC Health West Chester Campus, which then led to an ultrasound and a needle biopsy all in one day.

The HER2-Positive Breast Cancer Treatment Journey

Doctors diagnosed Jill with HER2-positive breast cancer, which is a breast cancer that tests positive for the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) protein.

“It's a really aggressive cancer, and I was diagnosed at stage 3,” she says.

Since her diagnosis, Jill has received 18 chemotherapy treatments, a mastectomy, 30 radiation treatments, breast reconstruction surgery and several other surgical procedures. Despite a very challenging treatment journey, she continued to live her life as best she could–managing her business and taking care of her teenage children.

“I was determined that cancer would not stop me, and I certainly would not let it define me,” Jill states. “Being active and having a positive attitude was a very important part of that. My treatment was extremely successful, and I was declared cancer-free, but I still have lingering effects from treatment.” Jill adds. “You are forever changed by cancer and the journey doesn’t end when treatment is over. I wanted to ensure that I was doing everything that I could to ensure a long, happy and healthy future.”

Enhancing Life After Cancer with the Cancer Survivorship Program

For Jill, that is where the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center Cancer Survivorship and Supportive Services Program became an indispensable resource for her—providing personalized care that encompassed evidence-based interventions, disease surveillance, healthy lifestyle promotion and support and resources for family and caregivers.

As the largest survivorship program in the region, it offers more than 20 types of services and therapies as well as the region’s first oncology primary care clinic—designed to provide primary care services specifically focused on the needs of adults with a history of cancer.

Melissa Erickson, MD, UC Health primary care physician, medical director for the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center Cancer Survivorship Program and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UC College of Medicine, says cancer patients have many side effects related to their illness and treatments.

“The survivorship program was created to improve quality of life and promote overall health and wellness by addressing treatment-related side effects such as fatigue, pain and mental health concerns,” Dr. Erickson explains.

“Patients who participate in these services say that they finally feel heard. They no longer have to suffer in silence or just be grateful that they survived their cancer,” Dr. Erickson says. “They appreciate that someone is specifically addressing these needs and working with them to develop a plan. It aids in their recovery by improving quality of life and increasing the likelihood of adhering to cancer surveillance and/or long-term cancer treatment.”

Jill has taken advantage of several survivorship offerings, including the Cancer Exercise Wellness Program offered within the Daniel Drake Center’s Outpatient Rehabilitation at the UC Health West Chester Campus.

Personalized training and exercise routines for cancer survivors are delivered by a multidisciplinary team of exercise physiologists, respiratory therapists, nurses and physicians. With their help, Jill has adopted an exercise and weightlifting routine that helps with core strengthening and conditioning of her arms, which were hard to lift above her head after reconstruction surgery.

“When you are recovering from treatment–radiation, chemotherapy or surgery–you feel unsure about how to get back to normal movements and exercising,” Jill says. “I had surgical scars on many areas on my body and I didn’t know what I could and could not do. It makes me feel much more comfortable working with therapists who are trained in cancer recovery and who can offer personalized therapies to address my specific needs.”

“Treatment for our patients is never cookie-cutter,” Chad Balilo, manager for Cardiac, Pulmonary, Cancer and Vascular Rehabilitation and Wellness at Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care says. “Each person is unique, from diagnosis to recovery.  We assess the multiple needs of each patient carefully as we deliver an individualized, evidence-based solution. Cancer exercise is not as prevalent a topic as exercise science is for heart disease. Providing patients, caregivers and the community with encouragement, education and other resources can help make the benefits of exercise more well known.”

Expanding Exercise and Wellness to Cancer Patients During Treatment

The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center has a pilot program underway to bring exercise to chemotherapy infusion suites—a clinical model to provide earlier exercise intervention during the patient’s cancer journey. Because fatigue affects patients both during and after treatment, the goal is to expand this service to reach more patients and dispel the myth that patients cannot exercise during treatment.

Discover More

To receive the name of a breast cancer specialist at the UC Health West Chester Campus, please call 513-298-DOCS (3627).