Breast cancer patient maintains an active lifestyle through treatment

Stacey Zawacki was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2021, with no previous family history or apparent risk factors. As a 57-year-old, proud mother and grandmother, and director of Boston University’s Sargent Choice Nutrition Center, it was shocking and terrifying to find out that she had cancerous cells growing inside her. It was especially scary when she saw “invasive ductal carcinoma” and “positive lymph nodes” listed in her online patient portal chart on a Friday afternoon, with many questions and scenarios running through her head before she was able to discuss with her primary care physician. Luckily, Stacey was soon referred to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers and began to feel at ease, after a period of uncertainty and major worry. “I was so impressed and relieved by how fast everything was scheduled for me at Dana-Farber,” she recalls. “I met with Drs. Wendy Chen and Thanh Barbie within a few days of my initial call. Dr. Chen ordered scans immediately and scheduled a same-evening telehealth visit to go over my results. My chemotherapy was set to begin within a week of my first visit.” 

Above left: Stacey (right) walking on a rail trail with her mother and granddaughter just three weeks after surgery. Above right: Stacey (fourth from the left in the front row) and her family on a staycation in summer 2021. Photo credit: Amber Lovett.

Stacey’s care team informed her that her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment plan came with a few key surgical decisions. The recommendation for her right breast and lymph nodes was a mastectomy and axillary lymph node dissection. This led to questions like “What should she do with her left breast?” and “What are your preferences for breast reconstruction?” 

“Everyone has an opinion, and it can be overwhelming,” Stacey recalls. “Dr. Barbie really listened to me as I weighed the pros and cons. I felt so supported when she affirmed my decision to have a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction. Today, my scars are barely noticeable!” 

As a member of the Boston community, Stacey had always been aware of Dana-Farber’s strong reputation, but had never experienced it firsthand before. She recalls attending an appointment after successfully completing chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Dr. Chen, her medical oncologist, shared that she would be attending an upcoming conference where she would hear  the results of a  drug aimed at women, like Stacey, with high risk of breast cancer recurrence. “Dr. Chen promised to share the results of the trial in a telehealth visit with me the same week as the conference,” Stacey remembers. “True to her word, at our next visit, she explained that the results were premature, but promising. We discussed the side effects of this drug, and I began a 2-year course of treatment that same day. This is just one example of the cutting-edge treatment that I’m lucky to receive at Dana-Farber.”

Another important aspect of Stacey’s care plan has been her participation in the LEANer trial, which stands for Lifestyle, Exercise, and Nutrition Early after Diagnosis and is led by Dana-Farber’s Jennifer Ligibel, MD, director of the Institute’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living. The trial is testing the effects of nutrition and physical activity intervention on chemotherapy completion rates, since patients typically wait until after their active treatment is complete to start paying attention to these wellness guidelines. As a member of the nutrition faculty at Boston University, Stacey was eager to experience this comprehensive treatment plan that recognized the power of nutrition and physical activity to not only counter some to the negative side effects of her treatment, but also to provide benefits to her health and overall well-being.  

Above left: Stacey (right) hiking with her husband Walter in Death Valley National Park, one-year post diagnosis. Above right: Stacey, right, posing with her daughter before the Falmouth Road Race in August.

“The LEANer trial taught me that I could walk every day and complete a strength training routine two times per week at home, even if I didn’t feel my best. It actually made me feel better!” Stacey says. “I also received nutritious recipes that were tolerable when I didn’t feel well, along with tips and tricks for managing treatment side effects. For example, I learned that many foods would taste funny during chemotherapy, but lemon would always taste like lemon, so I squeezed it on everything. In fact, I still do.” Stacey thanks Dana-Farber and the LEANer trial for giving her the confidence to see herself as a healthy person with cancer, who now has multiple tools to prevent breast cancer recurrence. 

As a healthy person prior to, during, and after treatment, Stacey was grateful to run as a member of Dana-Farber’s team for the ASICS Falmouth Road Race this past August, only two and a half years after her initial diagnosis. She chose to fundraise for Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund to show her gratitude for the top-notch care that she has received, and she runs to  ensure that others  gain access to that type of cutting-edge care.”  

Stacey also hopes to do her part to create a future where cancer isn’t feared. “Several of my young friends have been treated for breast cancer and my sister-in-law lost her life to this awful disease. I am inspired to run for all of our daughters and the people who love and count on them. And I want to protect their daughters from the pain and loss we all feel from cancer.”  

Support patients like Stacey this Breast Cancer Awareness Month by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at