When Weslinne Adhemar Cespedes found a large lump in her left breast she scheduled an appointment with her OB-GYN. Even though friends and co-workers assured her that it was probably a benign cyst — especially because she was so young — she didn’t want to take any chances.
“As women, we just get bogged down or we focus on the day-to-day, our careers, our families and sometimes we put behind our self-care,” the 30-year-old school guidance counselor, who lives in Brooklyn, told TODAY. “This is part of self-care.”
In March, her doctor sent her for a sonogram and said if the lump looked harmless there would be no more tests. When the results came back, Cespedes learned she needed a mammogram and a biopsy. She grew worried.
“I honestly felt like it crept up on me,” she said. “My anxiety levels shot up.”
By the end of March she had her results: She had breast cancer.
“I was just balling,” she said. “I went to my fiancé’s apartment and we just cried and cried.”
Her fiancé, Emmanuel Cespedes, had proposed to her in October 2019 and the couple had planned on getting married on May 2. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, their venue rescheduled their wedding for August 1.
Now, Cespedes was facing months of treatment and surgery. She was scared and unsure of what would happen with her cancer as cases of coronavirus were increasing dramatically. The wife of Emmanuel’s best friend works at the Dubin Breast Center of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai in New York, and she recommended Cespedes visit the center for a second opinion.
“We just wanted to feel more at ease or know how to move about with life,” she explained. “I wanted to know what stage I was in.”
Tests revealed that the cancer had spread into some lymph nodes in her armpit and doctors considered it stage 3.
“We were just like, ‘OK we’re not looking at stage 4,’” she said. "This is treatable."
Undergoing treatment and finding joy
Breast cancer is rare among women under 40 (only one in 1,567 will be diagnosed in their 20s, one in 220 will be diagnosed in their 30s). Yet, it's important to note that about 11% of all new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. are found in women younger than 45 years old.
Cespedes's physician, Dr. Amy Tiersten, a professor of medicine, hematology and oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and clinical director of breast medical oncology, told TODAY that Cespedes has an “aggressive type of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer.” Tiersten explained that some breast cancers express receptors and respond to targeted treatment, but this cancer doesn’t.
“The treatment of choice is chemotherapy. It is a type of breast cancer that is very responsive to chemotherapy,” said Tiersten.
Finding the lump early and getting treatment quickly helped Cespedes.
“Fortunately, hers was caught where it is completely local,” Tiersten said. “Her PET scan did not show any spread to other parts of her body.”
On April 17, Cespedes had her first chemotherapy infusion. Even though she worried about visiting the cancer center while the highly contagious coronavirus was spreading, she knew receiving treatment was vital.
“I know how scary it is. We’re all supposed to stay home and social distance ourselves and there’s a higher risk of contracting COVID-19,” she said. “I need this treatment. I need to care for myself. And I feel really safe.”
So far, she has only had three of her 16 pre-operative chemotherapy treatments, but she’s responding well to it.
“She’s already had a very substantial decrease in the expressed mass,” Tiersten said. “The goal is to shrink it down to make surgery more feasible.”
For a few days following her chemotherapy treatments, Cespedes feels rundown. She also has Type 1 diabetes, which she manages with insulin. Still, she feels mostly good. Even though her wedding was postponed due to the coronavirus and cancer, she slowly started moving her things into a two-bedroom apartment with Emmanuel while they continued to wonder if their August 1 wedding would even happen.
When they learned their wedding officiant was moving away, they decided to do a socially distanced wedding ceremony on May 25. They had to be flexible. The wedding dress was stuck in a store closed because of the pandemic. But Cespedes wore another white dress she had. Their wedding party helped make the day special (including by hiring photographers who took pictures from the bushes to stay safe).
“This was the one thing we could control,” Cespedes said. “We're making the best of what we have. We’re just really focused on laughter, happiness and joy in the midst of a pandemic and my cancer treatment."
The couple exchanged vows on the lawn of their maid of honor’s house in Long Island while family sat in cars or watched over Zoom or Facebook Live. Emmanuel wrote pages of vows to Cespedes and even included her 13-year-old daughter in them.
“We were in tears with what he shared about my daughter,” Cespedes said. “About seeing the young woman that she’s become and seeing her strength and her compassion.”
Cespedes has been sharing her experience with breast cancer on social media to encourage women to take their health seriously.
“I really do want to advocate that people take the time to care for themselves,” she said. “Really make time for what matters.”