Staff Report

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When you meet Cassandra Caldwell, there is no denying that this spunky breast cancer survivor has a passion for life. Just three days after throwing herself a triumphant celebration of life party with more than 120 of her closest friends in attendance, she shared her challenging 14-month journey from breast cancer diagnosis to remission.

In March 2022, following a routine mammogram and her regularly prescribed ultrasound screening for dense breasts, Cassandra was diagnosed with stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer known to have a faster growth rate and higher risk of metastasis and recurrence risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of females have dense breast tissue, making it more difficult to identify tumors while also increasing the overall risk of developing breast cancer. Both dense breast tissue and abnormal breast changes, such as calcifications and tumors, show up white on a mammogram. Having dense breasts reduces mammography sensitivity from 85% to between 47.8% and 64.4%, according to a 2018 literature review.

CASSANDRA CALDWELL: Today, cancer-free. But women have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime and the incidence rates are increasing each year.

“Years ago, I listened to breast cancer survivor and Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts discuss the importance of secondary screenings, such as ultrasounds, for women with dense breasts,” Cassandra said. “I began asking my healthcare provider for that in addition to routine screenings, and I also recommended that my friends do so as well.”

While stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer is not an easy diagnosis to digest, the cancer could have been left undetected for a long period of time without a secondary ultrasound screening. Cassandra had no symptoms, and her initial mammogram didn’t detect any cancer, but thanks to the ultrasound, her cancer was caught relatively early, and her prognosis was promising.

The 51-year-old learned about her breast cancer diagnosis one month after losing her job. “It was a lot to take in, as a single professional woman,” Cassandra said. “I worried about how the medical bills were going to get paid.”

Cassandra was referred to Broward Health Medical Center’s cancer care center where Alia Abdulla, D.O., a breast surgical oncologist, and Shannon Keating, D.O., a hematology and oncology specialist, developed a specialized treatment plan.

“Women have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime and the incidence rates are increasing each year,” Dr. Abdulla said. “With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, women should be vigilant and proactive about their breast health. If your mammogram report says that you have dense breast tissue, speak to your healthcare provider about additional screening tests that are available.”

Cassandra underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy, a surgical breast lumpectomy, followed by 20 rounds of radiation, and 1,334 chemotherapy pills over the course of 14 months.

“It was a very intense treatment plan, and I told myself that if it didn’t work, I probably wouldn’t undergo it again,” she added. “Thankfully, I was able to focus solely on healing without the financial stresses of being unemployed and burdened with medical bills. I’m grateful to several nonprofit organizations that stepped up to help with the costs during active treatment.”

Today, Cassandra is cancer-free and will continue to be monitored throughout the next five years with quarterly blood tests, while also continuing to be screened by mammogram, ultrasound, and clinical breast exam by Dr. Abdulla every six months as part of her follow-up.

As a parting gift to Broward Health Medical Center, Cassandra donated a large, beautiful ship’s bell in honor of cancer survivors and “thrivers,” which now hangs in the hospital’s healing garden.

“I would sit in the infusion center and wonder where the bell was that survivors were always ringing at the end of treatment, and when my nurse eventually showed it to me, I thought it needed to stand out more because of what it represented,” Cassandra said. “I wanted to donate a big bell, so I did, and seeing others ring it brings me so much joy.”

An Ohio State University graduate with a Ph.D. in human and community development, Cassandra diligently persisted with her job hunt throughout treatment, even when she wasn’t feeling well. Just three weeks before Cassandra finished her treatment, she landed a new job as a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer with a Fort Lauderdale-based law firm.

“As they say, ‘timing is everything in life,’ and in my experience every step of this journey happened at the right time, giving me the needed opportunity to heal before beginning my next chapter,” she added.

Cassandra’s advice to other women who have been diagnosed and face the difficult road of cancer treatment is to be open to people and to accept help from others.

“People will be overly supportive in ways you never expected,” Cassandra said. “I never felt alone during this process, from my supportive doctors and caregivers to my compassionate network of friends and family, I always felt that people had their arms around me.”