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Side-by-Side Survivors: Mother and Daughter Duo Beat Breast Cancer Breast Cancer

Side by Side Survivors Mother and daughter duo beat breast cancer - two women embracing

If you ask Molly Weingart about her experience with breast cancer, the first thing she'll tell you is that Pennsylvania Hospital really should have given her frequent flyer status by now — or, as her mother Deborah Spitalnik suggested, a "get five surgeries, get one free" punch card.

But Weingart and Spitalnik have more in common than their sense of humor. Both mother and daughter received the same breast cancer diagnoses when they were quite young, underwent aggressive chemotherapy, and had reconstructive surgeries. Both are navigating the complex world of recovery by using their stories to uplift others, with Weingart taking a public advocacy approach and Spitalnik making herself available to her friends and community.

Oh, and both just walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, showing what it looks like to reclaim your body and your life after critical illness.

Joining the Unwanted Sorority

mother and daughter embracing
Credit: Kirsten Miccoli

Spitalnik has received more than her fair share of hard news at PAH, but she remains insistent that there is nowhere else she would rather receive care. After two pregnancy losses, she credited PAH's high-risk perinatal team with bringing her daughter, Molly, into the world in 1985, and while she was shaken when she received her cancer diagnosis in 1995, she was so grateful to receive the results of her mammogram immediately.

"It was still unique at the time to get results right away. Even though I was shocked and terrified, I was so thankful to not have to deal with the anxiety of not knowing," she said.

As Spitalnik underwent chemotherapy and radiation, she and her husband, John, put on a strong, united front to present cancer as an annoyance and something that was temporarily interrupting their lives, even when she experienced a series of life-threatening infections. Weingart appreciated "being spared some of the experiences that some kids have when their parent has a serious illness," but she still had an underlying fear that she would one day get sick too.

In 2017, just a few months after her 32nd birthday, she found a lump. She assumed it was scar tissue from a previous surgery, but after an emergency mammogram, her childhood fears were confirmed — "first Grandma, then Mom, now me."

Back to PAH the family went. Like her mother, Weingart opted to keep her cancer journey private, but she recognized that even if she tried to put on a brave face, facing a cancer diagnosis at such a young age could be "incredibly isolating." With the support of her parents, closest friends, and dedicated care team members, she navigated the breast cancer minefield and has now been in remission for two years.

"I can't express how important it has been to experience such empathy and availability from my providers. They are exceptional," she said. She fondly recalls her nurses brushing her hair before friends came to visit, then later giving her tough-love talks when she was devastated about her hair loss. Her care team cheered her on when she performed a celebratory split after finishing chemotherapy, and they still give her hugs when she comes in for check-ups. "It's not a blessing to have cancer, but Pennsylvania Hospital has really been a blessing for us," said Spitalnik, who also vividly recalls being treated with warmth and compassion during her treatment and follow-up care.

Weingart knew as soon as she received her diagnosis that she would pursue reconstructive surgery. As she recovered and continued to regain her sense of self, she also chose to have her scars covered in beautiful floral tattoos by a Chicago artist who specializes in post-mastectomy tattoos. While Spitalnik is happy to forego the tattoos, she was inspired by her daughter and pursued reconstruction herself last year to repair lingering tissue damage. "I would have preferred that we had done something else together, but I really appreciate being able to accompany Molly along her cancer journey," she said.

Weingart agrees. "My mom had a deeper understanding of what I needed throughout my care and could provide a kind of unspoken support," she said. "It's a sorority that you never want to join, but we're part of a sisterhood now. We see each other differently as women, and it has changed our relationship."

Learning to Thrive Together

mother and daughter embracing at a photoshoot
Photo credit: Carey Kirkella

The mother-daughter duo was brought even closer last month when they walked the runway during New York Fashion Week. The modeling opportunity came about when Weingart's close friend Dana Donofree — another survivor and founder and CEO of lingerie company AnaOno — invited breast cancer "patients, survivors, and thrivers" at any stage of their journey to come together and raise funds for metastatic cancer research. Donofree partnered with #Cancerland — a non-profit media platform that fosters conversations about the harsh realities and often ignored topics surrounding breast cancer — to put on the show, dressing each model in the lingerie and loungewear she designs specifically to make women with breast cancer feel beautiful and comfortable.

"One of the reasons that I agreed to do this is because it has now been 25 years since my diagnosis. There's part of me that's very superstitious about celebrating that — but it truly is something to celebrate," Spitalnik said. "It's the same with birthdays; a lot of people complain about getting older, but for me, it's a gift. I may have been the only model with gray hair, but I had the chance to show what breast cancer can look like at different ages and stages."

Though both mother and daughter admit that the runway walk was definitely out of their comfort zones, this year's theme was, appropriately, #fearLESS. For Weingart and Spitalnik, the knowledge that cancer can return at a higher stage or in a different part of their body is always at the back of their minds, but the show theme emphasized the power in voicing those fears and using them to drive change.

"As I was going through treatment, I wondered why all of these breast cancer events were centered around fashion and makeup, but over time, I realized that there really is an inherent importance in showing what beauty looks like during and after illness," Weingart said. "Not only did we all come together as a community to advocate for progress, but we collectively said, 'My body is a form of protest. This is what scars look like, what implants look like, what fighting to gain a sense of your body back looks like.'"

As Weingart and Spitalnik continue to take their recovery one day at a time, one thing is certain: Whether the path is as straight as a runway or as uneven as a scar, they'll be walking it side-by-side and doing everything in their power to clear the way for those following them.

Experts from the Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center recommend genetic testing and consultation with a genetic counselor for individuals who have a family history of multiple cases of breast cancer, or breast cancer before the age of 50, among other risk factors. For more information, visit Basser.org, or call 215-662-2748.

To learn more about making a gift to support breast cancer research at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, contact Maddie Hansen at madd@upenn.edu or 215-898-9174.

This story was originally published in the What's New at Pennsylvania Hospital internal newsletter.