The sky was clear. The sun was bright. And Angie Vega and her husband Dave Izquierdo were in high spirits. Right up near the stage at the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, they were animated and sociable.
Laughing, Angie posed for photos. She was decked out in a pink top hat with matching tutu and boa. Dave, sporting hot pink troll hair and carrying a strides flag, was running in front of the stage, crisscrossing from the far left to the far right rousing the crowd during warm-ups.
That was eight months ago. Angie was in treatment for stage 2 invasive ductal breast cancer, but was out at the walk, none-the-less, raising awareness about her disease. She said it energized her, as these kinds of events do for so many others — attracting five, 10, 20, and even 30-year survivors, current patients, caregivers and supporters alike. In fact, Angie’s already registered and set up her team page — Angie’s Cancer Crushers — for the 2017 event in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Despite the declarations of cancer throughout the venue, she said the event’s an opportunity for “downtime away from our daily cancer world.”
“It’s so fun,” Angie said. “It just makes you feel so good to meet all these survivors.”
A year-and-a-half ago, Angie wouldn’t have imagined herself at Making Strides. She was feeling perfectly healthy. She adhered to a balanced diet and worked out five days a week.
On most days, she and Dave could be found welcoming customers to their Cuban sandwiches food truck — Havana Dave’s — stationed at area breweries, apartment complexes and office parks.
But, in November 2015, the busy then-43-year-old mother of four, with two teens still at home and two grown children, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Fear struck immediately,” Angie recounted. “I had recently discovered that my paternal grandfather, who lived in Cuba, had passed away back in 1978 as a result of breast cancer. My brother had just a year before been diagnosed with a pre-cancerous tumor in his breast.”
Genetic testing revealed that she had a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, a marker for increased susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer. Her oncologist P. Kelly Marcom, MD, said she may have inherited it from her grandfather, but it was difficult to know as he hadn’t been tested. Her mother doesn’t carry the mutation.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in U.S. women; killing more than 460,000 women per year. One in eight will be diagnosed in her lifetime. Breast cancer in men is 100 times less common, but about 460 U.S. men die of it each year.
Since January 2016, Angie’s undergone a radical bilateral mastectomy and lymph node dissection, four months of chemotherapy, and 30 sessions of daily radiation.
She also elected to have a total hysterectomy with oophorectomy (removal of the uterus and ovaries) to prevent the possibility of developing ovarian cancer. Only last month, she completed breast reconstruction surgery.
While Angie continues to take Letrozole, a targeted breast cancer therapy, and receives twice-yearly injections of Denosumab to protect her from bone density loss, she’s now in remission. She visits Marcom for checkups every three months and hopes to get to the every-six-months mark, then eventually to yearly visit.
“Dr. Marcom will be my lifelong friend,” she joked.
Born in Cuba, Angie and her family moved to Miami when she was eight-years-old. In 2009, she and Dave and two of their children moved to Wake Forest, North Carolina, which, in light of her breast cancer experience, she now believes was “God-guided.”
Initially diagnosed at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, she made what she considered a fateful decision to come to Duke Cancer Center for a second opinion.
“When I first walked into the beautiful building, I was so scared,” she recounted. “I thought ‘Oh wow, they are going to treat me like a number here,’ but to tell you the truth it has been the most beautiful treatment. It is not good care, it’s unbelievable care that I’ve received from everybody — from the kids who work in the parking lot to the receptionists, to the people that check you in, to the volunteers, it has been just amazing. I love Duke, I love the people, I love the doctors. I love the place. I wouldn’t have imagined myself anywhere else.”
On her Making Strides page, she wrote: “Over the past few months, I have experienced optimism, sadness, anger and fear, but most importantly hope. I am a new version of myself.”
While Angie chipped in $100 out of her own pocket for Making Strides last year, this time she aims to raise at least $1,000 and increase her team size by recruiting more family, friends, and members of a local BRCA2 breast cancer survivors support group she joined on Facebook.
She’s also counting on supporters of the Wake Forest breast cancer awareness non-profit, Redefined Courage, Inc.
“Whatever I can do for the future for other women and men so we can learn more about treatment, I’m all in,” Angie said.
She said to be on the lookout for Dave and her at the event this October.
“We’re also going to be colorful this year,” she said. “Dave will be there and you will notice him. My caregiver, he keeps me smiling and laughing all the time.”
Making Strides, held in many locations throughout the country, raises money to fund innovative research, provides free information and support, and helps people reduce their breast cancer risk or find it early when it's most treatable.
Duke Cancer Institute, where Angie was treated, is the local presenting sponsor for the Raleigh walk to be held on Saturday, October 14, at North Hills Mall. Team Duke Cancer Institute will be led by oncology breast surgeon and honorary team captain E. Shelley Hwang, MD. Breast surgeon Jennifer Plichta, MD, director of the Breast Risk Assessment Clinic at Duke, will be co-captain. Participants are encouraged to form teams and raise funds. Registration is free. For more information or to register for the DCI team, visit Making Strides. To support or join Angie’s team visit Angie’s Cancer Crushers.
Duke Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society (ACS) will host registration parties, featuring giveaways, at Duke Cancer Center, Clinic 2-2, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the following Wednesdays: July 19, August 23, and September 20.
Circle photo (top): On Supportive Care & Survivorship Day, June 7, 2017, breast cancer survivor Angie Vega thanks her Duke Cancer Institute care team, including Gregory Georgiade, MD, P. Kelly Marcom, MD, and Rachel Blitzbau, MD, PhD, and their nurses and staff. (photo by Ken Huth)