Medical advancements, like genetic testing, allow for the detection of developing serious illnesses earlier than ever before – and more importantly, take measures to protect our health. For Megan Niemczyk, a graduate of Georgia Tech's Online Master of Science in Analytics program, the safeguards of these medical advancements were lifesaving.
With a family history of breast cancer, genetic testing helped indicate that she carried a mutation in a gene called BRCA (BReast CAncer). While everyone has BRCA genes, inherited mutations of these genes increase the risk for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer in men and women. Additionally, BRCA-driven cancers also tend to be more aggressive – and sometimes harder to treat – so regular surveillance screenings, in the forms of mammograms or breast MRIs, are essential for early detection.
"I had gone in for a routine exam the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the MRI detected cancerous cells in my lymph node, something that wasn't present in a mammogram six months prior," recalled Niemczyk. "I immediately had a biopsy, and by Friday, was diagnosed with Stage2B breast cancer at the age of 32."
With only a few weeks left in the Fall 2019 semester, she immediately wondered how she would balance her new prognosis with the end-of-semester exams and assignments.
"I knew I was going to have this major appointment where I'd meet all my doctors and receive my treatment plan, but all I could think about was getting through finals and finishing my courses," she laughed. "My professors were incredibly accommodating, and it just took a huge worry off my plate."
By New Year's Eve, she had wrapped up the semester and was recovering from a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction surgery – a decision she opted for based on a firm understanding of data and statistics.
"Around one-third of breast cancer survivors will have a recurrence within the first five years after treatment," notes Niemczyk. "My background and education in analytics allowed me to interpret my diagnosis and treatment path in a more meaningful way, and also allowed me to ask more informed questions."
As Niemczyk recovered from surgery and awaited the start of active treatment, she prepared for her final semester of graduate school: an applied analytics practicum through a Georgia Tech-sponsored company. And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
While undergoing cancer treatment is already tough physically, mentally, and emotionally, the challenge of the pandemic presented unprecedented feelings of isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty.
"I was a few weeks into my chemotherapy treatment, my boyfriend had moved out at the recommendation of my oncologist, and all of sudden the pandemic hit," remembered Niemczyk. "In the beginning, before we knew the details, and my immune system was being ravaged, it was terrifying. I was home alone for several months."
During this period of solitude, she turned to family, friends, and virtual support groups to help navigate treatment and the pandemic.
"One of my biggest revelations after my diagnosis was recognizing the community that surrounded me. I've lived in the Washington metropolitan area for almost 10-years and never realized the network I had built for myself," she reflected. "I ended up doing a lot of Zoom calls and even discovered a women's reproductive-based cancer group – The Breasties – on Instagram."
Niemczyk also found connection and solace through her online degree program.
"It felt so good to finish my degree on my target date and gave me something to focus my energies on during a tough time only made tougher by the pandemic."
As research sheds even more light on hereditary cancers and genes that cause them, Niemczyk is excited about advancements but knows there's still more to be done for prevention, detection, and treatment.
"I love that institutions, like Georgia Tech, are participating in cancer research, in part because research is the reason we even know about the BRCA mutation," she said. "Even looking back at the cancer journeys of my grandmother or mother-in-law, and the ongoing improvements made in in the last 20 years...we've come such a long way. I'm optimistic that someone going through breast cancer reconstruction and cancer care 20 years from now will have an easier time than me because of advancements made possible by research."
While few women (or men) are truthfully ever prepared to receive a breast cancer diagnosis, Niemczyk recognizes that it does get better, so trust the process. "You'll have your moments but know that it's something you can get through. I'm a planner and remember being very frustrated because there's nothing you can do to prepare. You can't change the trajectory, so trust your doctors and focus on the here and now of your journey."
And to all her fellow survivors, she recommends celebrating every single win that you can, no matter how small it may be. "I know we like to talk about cancer in terms of diagnosis and remission, but it's ok to celebrate the in-between moments, like finishing a certain type of treatment and moving to the next. That's a big deal, too."
Niemczyk has had many milestones to celebrate herself over the last year, such as earning her Georgia Tech master's degree and completing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Hopeful for the future, she'll now have another milestone to commemorate: 18-months cancer-free on July 1, 2021.