Most people wouldn't say, "Get out of town!" when they find out they have cancer, but those were the first words out of Andy Sealy's mouth.
Andy was 36, and, until that point, was as healthy and carefree as could be. She worked, played with her dog, hung out with friends. Breast cancer never crossed her mind.
After feeling a lump in her breast, Andy scheduled an appointment with her OB/GYN. Between that time and the appointment, she noticed another one.
The OB/GYN sent Andy in for scans and biopsies, but she still didn't think much of it. When he called less than 24 hours later, Andy still was not worried. She immediately dove into normal conversation: "Hey doc, what's up? It was a great time yesterday. I learned a lot."
He said, "Kid, I have to stop you. … You have cancer."
That's when the "get out of town" comment escaped Andy's lips.
The First Steps
Andy wasn't quite sure how to proceed. Right away, she knew she had to tell her parents.
"That was the only time I got semi-tearful," she recalled. "That was the hardest part."
A nurse at Andy's former primary-care physician's office told Andy to go to Penn for treatment. Right away, Andy felt comfortable with her surgical oncologist, Dahlia Sataloff, MD, and her team.
"They were amazing and welcoming," she says, "I didn't know what to expect out of Penn — this place is huge: so many different buildings and parking lots — but they made the transition very easy."
Dr. Sataloff reviewed Andy's biopsies, and believed that they indicated stage I, or early-stage, breast cancer. However, she wouldn't truly know until after surgery. Andy opted for a double mastectomy.
Before her diagnosis, Andy had received breast implants. Some people tried to comfort her, saying that the mastectomy would be simple, but Andy knew that it was a completely different type of procedure.
Andy was nervous about the changes to her body.
"The idea of having my areolas and nipples removed didn't seem sexually appealing. That should have been the least of my worries, but that's honestly what I thought about," she says. "I had just turned 37, and I thought, 'Who's going to want me? Who's ever going to want someone that looks like Frankenstein?'"
Now, Andy makes light of the situation. She calls herself the "funny-face emoji like the line with the two eyes and mouth."
Andy is working with Mandy Sauler, a micropigmentation specialist and tattoo artist at Penn, who will tattoo nipples and areolas on Andy's breasts to enhance their appearance. She's also working with Suhail Kanchwala, MD, a plastic surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at Penn Medicine, and considering having another surgery to refine her breast shape.
Ta-Ta for Now
Always the fun-loving type, Andy threw herself a "ta-ta to my ta-tas" party before her surgery.
She expected just a few friends to show up, but a semi-viral Facebook post brought in hundreds of guests. Her friends decorated the event space with balloons that said "ta-ta" on them, while Andy wore a sheer shirt with a bikini top and let people feel the tumor.
She tried to keep the party as light and cheery as possible. Her only request was that guests not apologize.
"This is not a 'sorry' thing," she told them. "This is just something we are going to do."
This was only the first party. Post-surgery, Andy's friends threw a party called "Andy's banger" to raise money for her medical bills.
"I am the girl that got cancer and decided to keep partying, and I'm going to keep partying," she said.
Not Over Just Yet
Andy thought that her breast cancer ordeal would end after the mastectomy.
"As far as I understood it, I'd get the mastectomy and then have to be on hormonal therapy for the next 5 to 10 years. It was presented as, 'OK, you'll take a pill, it will slow down the cancer, and you'll possibly go into remission,'" she said. "But no one knows exactly what's going to happen. So, I was not prepared for what happened next."
During the mastectomy, the surgeon found and removed 13 lymph nodes. 11 turned out to be cancerous. Andy was told she had stage III cancer and would need to get bone scans and a CT scan of her abdomen, chest and pelvis.
A couple of weeks later, Andy met her oncologist, David Mintzer, MD, who said she had stage IV metastatic breast cancer. This meant the cancer had spread. There were tumors in her right hip and on her spine.
At the time, Andy thought stage IV meant death right away. "I thought it was time to get my affairs in order," she said.
But after she did some research, Andy realized that there are different statistics for stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
"Some people say the 5-year life span is 22 percent. Some people defy the odds. I think I could be the one to defy those odds," she said.
Continuing Treatment with a Smile
Andy's treatment involves hormone therapy. She also takes antidepressants to help with her mood and hot flashes.
On top of the cancer, Andy is also going through menopause. She gets medication every three months to strengthen her bones, as she is more susceptible to breaks.
She gets scanned every three months to see if there are new tumors, or if her tumors have changed in size.
Life After Surgery
Andy makes sure to step back and take stock of how she's doing.
"I'm not a worrier, but I'm very cautious," she said. "So, I tell myself, 'OK, you need to slow down. You're enjoying yourself, but you've got to keep in mind that you still have stuff going on.'"
When Andy notices new symptoms, she keeps her care team in the loop by using the MyPennMedicine online portal to remain in constant contact. Her doctors are very responsive, answering right away, even calling from their personal cell phones if she needs to talk.
"I love all of my doctors, as well as their teams, and everyone at the front desk and office," she said. "Every time I walk in, they remember me. They're amazing. I'll always be very grateful for them, and I'm going to be seeing them for the rest of my life, so I've made some friends."
Andy on a Mission
Today, Andy is using her experience with breast cancer to help others. She hopes to educate people about early detection and about metastatic breast cancer.
She also focuses on living her life to its fullest. She took a break from work, and now spends as much time as she can with her friends and family.
"I really feel like this happened to me for a reason," she said. "I'm fortunate that it happened to me, because I don't have children and I'm not married. I'd rather it be me than someone I love who would have to deal with all of that."