Beating breast cancer: Jody and Robyn’s stories

Two women stand together, each holding a piece of the string used to ring the Victory Bell after completing cancer treatment. Both women are smiling proudly and laughing.

Close friends share everything: laughs, stories, good times and strength in moments of struggle.

Robyn Gilmartin and Jody Czaja, both of Clarence, shared all that and more when they both went through breast cancer treatment at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Jody’s diagnosis came first, in 2017, following her second mammogram. A radiologist friend spotted some unusual areas on her mammogram and scheduled Jody to come in the following week for an ultrasound to look more closely. “I came back in; we did the magnification and she showed me on the screen. It looked like a constellation, that’s how I describe it.”

Breast cancer patient Robyn Gilmartin rings the Victory Bell - June 6 2022

A short time later Jody had a biopsy completed and she was diagnosed with two types of cancer in the same breast: ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning it was small and unlikely to spread, and stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer. Prior to this, no woman in her family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was shocked,” Jody says. Given the aggressive nature of triple-negative breast cancer, and her age, Jody opted for a double mastectomy. “It was not an easy choice. I was 41 and had four kids. That’s really what my focus was: I breastfed my children, I wasn’t having any more children. I need to be around for them.”

Her decision was supported by her breast surgeon, Helen Cappuccino, MD, FACS and the surgery took place on January 2, 2018. “I was glad! It was done,” recalls Jody, who did not need to have chemotherapy or radiation as part of her treatment because the tumors were small and fully removed by the surgery. “I was looking forward to being done. You’re walking around concerned; it’s a little daunting.”

But Jody wasn’t quite done yet. She wanted to have immediate breast reconstruction with implants placed at the time of cancer surgery, but she didn’t have enough tissue after the mastectomy. It would take about six months before a second procedure could be done to rebuild the tissue on that side. Six months later, after her implants were placed, she developed an infection on one side and came back to Roswell Park to be treated after another medical team couldn’t properly treat it. “My lung partially collapsed because I wasn’t breathing properly from the pain. I went by ambulance back to Roswell Park and they fixed me right up. The program here for when you’re sick, it’s so good. They’re really incredible.”

A club no one wants to join

While Jody was recovering, Robyn was helping to care for Jody’s family. They’ve been close friends for years as their daughters and sons all went to school together. Robyn saw what Jody went through and knew how difficult the second half of her treatment was but, like Jody initially, there was never a thought of cancer hitting home.

She was on a business trip in San Francisco in September 2021, taking her usual morning shower, but without the shower pouf and body wash she uses at home and just a bar of soap. She felt a lump but shrugged it off, as her mammogram a few months before was clear.

“I thought, let me give this a few weeks and see if it goes away, if it’ll go down,” Robyn says. At an appointment with her obstetrician/gynecologist the following month, she was told to go for an ultrasound immediately. “I didn’t tell anyone at first. I didn’t tell my husband; I just told the client I had to cancel a meeting with that afternoon. I waited two days for the biopsy results and still didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want anyone to worry. I wasn’t terribly worried.”

Two days later, she was diagnosed with triple-negative ductal carcinoma in her breast, as her doctor anticipated. She met with the surgeon he recommended, who wanted to her to have surgery before exploring other options. Robyn wanted to know what her options were upfront and came to Roswell Park, where she was presented with a course of treatment that involved a chemotherapy and a clinical trial for her cancer, followed by surgery.

Breast cancer patient Jody Czaja ringing the Victory Bell - June 6, 2022

“I remember calling Jody saying this doctor says I just need a lumpectomy, tell me about what you did,” Robyn says. Like Jody, Robyn’s children were grown and she wasn’t considering having any others, so she opted for a double mastectomy. “If I can take that future risk off the table — I might be a grandma and wanting to spend time with my children’s kids down the road, I don’t want to be dealing with this later,” she says. After sending her records to the Cleveland Clinic for an impartial review and suggestion on her course of treatment, Robyn enrolled in the clinical trial at Roswell Park, followed by surgery.

Throughout the process, Robyn kept her goals clear: She wanted to be done with treatment by the end of May, around the time her daughter graduated from high school. To help avoid getting COVID, as infection rates rose in Erie County at the end of 2021, she moved in with her parents in Great Barrington, Mass., and they drove the 11 hours round-trip each week for her chemotherapy treatments at Roswell Park. A few times her treatment had to be moved up a day to accommodate the weather, but the idea of delaying treatment was never really an option.

“I have a few texts from my husband saying, ‘You need to stop telling the doctors how to do their jobs,’ but I remained steadfast in my end goal and self-advocacy’,” Robyn says with a laugh. “I had pneumonitis right before my scheduled surgery. One doctor said 'we’re going to have you see a pulmonologist and postpone surgery.' I said 'no, that’s not going to happen. If you postpone a week, it’ll be postponed a month after graduation.' We consulted with the anesthesiologist to make sure it wouldn’t be a risk, and in the end it wasn’t, but they were worried about a reaction to the chemo.”

A big day for mothers and daughters

Robyn had her last routine appointment with her team on May 24. Her family was all going to be together for her daughter’s graduation June 6 and, since all tests came back clear, she thought about ringing the Victory Bell that day.

In telling Jody about her appointment, Robyn realized Jody never had that moment – she was given the all-clear right after her initial surgery but didn’t feel finished with her cancer journey until her breast reconstruction was completed, which happened during the pandemic. Instead of ringing the bell by herself, Robyn invited Jody to join her. After all, if it weren’t for Jody’s advice, support and guidance, Robyn’s journey might have been very different.

“It was kind of a missing piece to be able to say I am done,” Jody says. “I’m so grateful.”

“It was amazing,” Robyn agrees. “Our girls had graduation practice that morning and we didn’t want to take away from them. We wanted the focus to be on them.” Each woman rang the bell on her own – Robyn was jubilant and celebratory, Jody let tears of relief fall. They hugged and rang the bell together one more time.

Through it all, their families supported them. Their sons found ways to incorporate pink into their clothes and accessories; they spoke with their daughters about the importance of self-exams and early detection. Neither family had a history of breast cancer; now both do.

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Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.