In the middle of a December night in 2020, Angelica “Angie” Perez-Delgado lay in bed struggling to breathe with an otherwise mild case of COVID. Clutching her chest and trying to catch her breath, she felt something in her right breast that she had never noticed before – a golf ball-sized lump. A cold panic spread: she was six years late for a mammogram.
Immediately, Perez-Delgado set the earliest appointment available with her primary care provider, but because health systems were overwhelmed by COVID, it was difficult to get in for a mammogram. In mid-January, she was finally able to grab an appointment when there was a last-minute cancelation. She ended up being there all day when a mammogram led to an ultrasound and then to a biopsy.
“A couple of days later, I got that awful call that lets you know, ‘sorry, but we found cancer in your breast,’” Perez-Delgado recalls. “That set off a whole series of events. Your life just spins. It’s crazy how quickly life can change on you.”
The next several months were a whirlwind of tests and meetings with oncologists, surgical oncologists and plastic surgeons at Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Pluta Cancer Center. By July, Perez-Delgado had had both of her breasts and a lymph node removed and had undergone an 18-hour full breast reconstruction, which took both a physical and mental toll. She will need to take hormonal therapy for several years, but her health is stable under the care of Wilmot Cancer Institute oncologist Ajay Dhakal, M.B.B.S.
“If I would’ve just gotten my yearly mammograms, I probably wouldn’t have had to go through a double mastectomy and everything I went through,” she said. “I was really lucky that I caught it when I did – and I don’t know if I would’ve caught it if I hadn’t been bound home with COVID.”
After traveling this difficult road herself, Perez-Delgado is now a fierce advocate for cancer screening of all kinds. As president and CEO of the Ibero-American Action League, time – or the lack thereof – was a main reason she put off getting a mammogram for six years.
Her experience helped her recognize barriers to screening that she’d never noticed before – for instance, how difficult it can be to get screening and specialty appointments. Her own cancer journey began with an urgent cancer screening that required her to come in at the drop of a hat, which may not possible for many hourly or shift workers.
Luckily, she was in a position to remove that barrier for employees of her organization. “The Ibero-American Action League now has a policy that says that staff can take up to seven hours – outside their regular paid time off – to do any kind of screening without having to give notice,” Perez-Delgado said.
That seemingly simple policy gives workers the flexibility to take that last-minute appointment without losing precious pay or worrying about repercussions at work. While there are still many other barriers to screening, this is an easy step any organization can take to lower the bar and help their employees take charge of their own health.
Telling Her Story
Not knowing anyone who had had breast cancer also lulled Perez-Delgado into complacency. Breast cancer felt like a rare and distant possibility, so getting a mammogram wasn’t at the top of her very long priority list.
“I just really didn’t think it could happen to me and I didn’t know enough,” she said. “An amazing thing that I found out in my cancer journey was how many people around me had had cancer and never told anyone.”
After she was diagnosed and decided to speak about it publicly, she was overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to share their own cancer stories. So many people close to her had suffered in silence, inadvertently hiding the scary reality that cancer wasn’t distant or rare.
That is why Perez-Delgado is so determined to tell her own story, and she hopes her openness will inspire others to do the same.
“It’s so important to talk about it,” she said. “I think talking about it helps other people say, ‘Maybe it can be me because I know someone who has gone through this.’”
Perez-Delgado now jokes that she tells people about her experience any chance she gets. And she’s committed to educating her daughter and people around her about the warning signs of breast cancer and the importance of screening.
“I know it’s scary, but just get your mammograms,” she said. “It will save you a lot of trauma, it will give you comfort, it will help you gain control if you happen to be positive for cancer. Just get your mammogram.”