Before February 6, 2013, Amelia Coffaro was a normal 28-year-old woman.
She was in New York City, working as a photographer and living her
dream. But everything changed for her on that day in February.
For several months, Amelia had been experiencing back pain – when she was home in July of 2012 for a routine physical, an x-ray revealed a compressed disc. She also had a small lump in her chest, but it was believed to be just a mass of inflamed tissue. Her doctor instructed her to monitor it closely and Amelia returned to her life in New York.
“I was so busy and always on the go. When you’re going, going, going you kind of don’t feel the symptoms,” says Amelia. “It’s not like I was ever feeling really sick.”
But over the following months the back pain persisted and the lump got bigger. Right after New Year’s, Amelia knew something was wrong. On February 5th, she was on a plane back to Milwaukee and the next day she was in her doctor’s office.
“My doctor took one look and knew immediately,” she says. “The scariest part is not knowing. In your gut you know, but you’re still waiting for confirmation.”
Amelia was sent for an emergency mammogram, breast MRI and an ultrasound. Later that same day she had a biopsy done and they diagnosed her: Stage 3 Inflammatory Invasive Breast Cancer.
“I remember being sad and scared,” she says. “It’s a surreal thing. Your life literally changes in an instant.”
Amelia’s cancer care team was quickly assembled and immediately got to work on her treatment plan. “I love that I have this team of women who are strong and caring. It’s a great thing,” she says. “I feel like I’m in the best hands possible.”
A week later, on Valentine’s Day, Amelia started chemotherapy. She underwent surgery on May 23rd, and finished up her second course of chemotherapy in late August. She followed that up with a four-week course of radiation, and recently finished her last 40 weeks of chemotherapy.
“It’s a long road. But if there ever was a time to just be, this is the time. You can’t do anything else but just be,” says Amelia. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, you just need to let go and trust that these doctors will see you through. The only thing you can choose is your attitude. You choose to be positive and you can choose to be happy.”
Amelia’s positive attitude and Zen-like calmness in the face of so much
uncertainty is truly remarkable. For most 28-year-olds, cancer is
probably the absolute last thing on their mind. Doctors don’t even
recommend women get annual mammograms until they reach age 40. But in
increasing numbers, young woman are developing this disease.
While still relatively rare, a recent study by The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that in 2009 cases of advanced breast cancer were found in 2.9 per 100,000 women age 25 to 39. That’s up from 1.53 per 100,000 three decades ago. That increase translates to about 550 more cases per year. Breast cancer is a traumatic diagnosis for anyone, but when it strikes someone so young it’s especially devastating.
Amelia refuses to dwell on that, though. For her, she finds peace by staying busy and, as best as she can, continuing to do the things that made her who she was before the diagnosis.
As a photographer, she found solace and inspiration through her
viewfinder. Now as a cancer patient, she continues to use her camera as
an expression of herself. From the very beginning, Amelia has been
documenting her experience. It has helped her stay balanced and remember
who she is.
“Having that camera takes me outside of myself,” she says. “I’m not sitting here as a cancer patient, I’m just a curious observer. That helps with the fear.”
Her photography also helps keep the legions of supports and loved ones informed and up-to-date. Soon after her diagnosis, a group of her friends and colleagues back in New York launched Project Amelia, an online fundraiser that so far has raised more than $57,000 for Amelia’s cancer treatment.
“I am so grateful. Seeing what my friends are doing because they care about me is one of the most rewarding and hopeful things. It’s motivation for me to keep going and get better,” she says. “The $5 donations are just as big as the $1,000 donations which are just as big as the flowers I received or the heartfelt e-mail or the prayer that was said in my name or the stranger who shared a similar personal experience with me. Every little ounce of support is love.”