Finding a Breast Cancer ‘SoulMate’

Melissa with her husband, Chuck, and their three boys, Michael, Charlie, and Jack
Melissa with her husband, Chuck, and their three boys, Michael, Charlie, and Jack.

On January 7, 2015, I went to bed having no idea that the next day my life would change forever. I was at work, waiting for a call from my doctor saying the biopsy performed three days prior was benign. My phone rang and I didn’t want to answer it, which was odd, because I was literally waiting by the phone. I heard the most dreaded sentence come out of my doctor’s mouth: “Unfortunately, it’s cancer.” In one instant, I realized that my life would never be the same.

My thoughts immediately flashed to my children. Michael, my youngest, was only one. I wondered; if something happened to me, are they too young to remember me? I can’t remember life without them. Would they remember life with me? That night I sat on the couch and looked around at our family pictures. If my husband found happiness with someone else, would these pictures stay up?

My name is Melissa Angiolillo. I am 35. I am a wife, a daughter, a mom to three young boys, and I have stage III breast cancer. In the past eight months, I have undergone a double mastectomy, finished eight rounds of chemotherapy, went bald, became afraid of plastic, considered becoming vegan, completed 25 radiation treatments, explained cancer to a 6- and 3-year old, felt more alone than ever before, felt more loved than ever before, had hope, had no hope, started to live fully, faced my mortality, and spoke to my husband about what would happen if…

Although a great attitude and a sense of humor can help you through some of the toughest days, there is a dark side to this disease. It’s not pink, and it’s not tied in a bow. Every night before bed, I thought about my kids and my future. These thoughts are the reality of breast cancer.

Melissa and Noel
Melissa and Noel

Until I met my SoulMate Noel, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing these thoughts and fears. SoulMates is a program at Dana-Farber that matches breast cancer patients with peer mentors who have already completed treatment. I realized within minutes of talking to Noel that we were meant to know each other. Not only did we speak the same language (fluent sarcasm), but I could also openly share my deepest, darkest thoughts and fears, and knew she would understand. The gift bag she gave me on my first day of chemo made me laugh out loud, and that was the first of many times we will laugh together. I know we can also have authentic conversations, without filtering words, and there will be a level of mutual compassion, understanding, and respect for what we are going through.

She taught me a mindset that I can only describe in this way: instead of trying to live with breast cancer, you try to live in spite of breast cancer. You keep going one day at a time. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, but today is here, and you have to live it! And you don’t always have to tie a pretty pink ribbon around it.

SoulMates, although focused on peer-to-peer mentoring, is so much more than the individual relationships. It’s a community of support, understanding, kindness, and openness that speaks to the core of what a breast cancer patient faces on a daily basis.

Cancer changed my being. It changed my insides, both literally and figuratively. I don’t believe cancer is a gift. I don’t consider this a journey, and I certainly don’t think of cancer as a way to “put things into perspective.” However, I have had the opportunity over the past months to see my own strength, witness the good in people, and experience a vulnerability that I swore I didn’t have. I will never be the same because of the cancer, and because of my SoulMate, Noel.

By Melissa Angiolillo

Judie and Larry Schlager have made several generous gifts to help establish and grow SoulMates, the program detailed above which matches breast cancer patients with volunteer mentors who have had a similar diagnosis at Dana-Farber. To add to that support, the Schlager family took part in Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai on Sept. 27.

Pictured left to right, Larry Schlager, granddaughter Allison Schlager, Dana-Farber Trustee Judie Schlager, and mom/daughter-in-law Beth Schlager.   Eric Schlager (not pictured above), son of Larry and Judie,  is also a Dana-Farber Trustee.
Pictured left to right, Larry Schlager, granddaughter Allison Schlager, Dana-Farber Trustee Judie Schlager, and mom/daughter-in-law Beth Schlager. Eric Schlager (not pictured above), son of Larry and Judie, is also a Dana-Farber Trustee.