By Steve Blanchard - September 26, 2023
When Madeline Mordarski learned her mother had stage 3C breast cancer in 2015, she immediately put her life in London on hold and moved to Bradenton to be her caretaker. Her mother, Doreen Wesley, began treatment planning at Moffitt Cancer Center and eventually opted for a double mastectomy.
She has been in remission for seven years.
That up-close experience with her mother’s cancer journey made Mordarski more aware of breast cancer than ever before. In fact, she credits that experience as her mother’s caregiver with educating her on how to self-check.
In November 2022, she discovered a lump in her left breast.
“Because of her diagnosis I became very diligent about self-checks,” said Mordarski, who now lives in Miami. “I turned 32 years old just five days before I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.”
Breast cancer is rare in younger women, according to Dr. John Kiluk, a surgical oncologist in Moffitt’s Breast Oncology Program who operated on both mother and daughter. But all cancer types can be diagnosed in any age, he stressed.
“Madeline understood her risk because of what her mother experienced, and she detected her own cancer before a mammogram,” Kiluk said. “She identified the cancer, sought medical attention and had the appropriate treatment.”
Not only did Mordarski have the experience of being a breast cancer patient’s caregiver, but she also educated herself with resources available. What she learned was scary, she said.
“I had heard of triple-negative before and I went down the rabbit hole,” she said. “It’s scary what’s currently published out there as triple-negative breast cancer is known to have poor prognostic features, but my care team helped me understand that advancements in treatment options give hope to patients like me.”
Mordarski decided to share her diagnosis and cancer treatment through social media, where she found survivors of triple-negative breast cancer and younger patients who could relate to her.
“My mom was wonderful and took care of me throughout the journey, but she couldn’t relate to being presented with fertility options or what it’s like to be in your 30s and battling triple-negative breast cancer,” Mordarski said. “My newly found cancer sisters helped me navigate the freezing of my eggs, gave me advice on dating with cancer, things like that.”
Sixteen rounds of chemotherapy were the first step in combating her cancer. She knew surgery was necessary and she sought Kiluk, who had taken such good care of her mother.
“I am based in Miami and my friends, job and life are here,” Mordarski said. “I stayed local for chemo, but I knew I wanted Dr. Kiluk for my surgery.”
Mordarski said her conversation with Kiluk made her feel safe. She said he drew an analogy of cancer being a monster in a cave and figuring out where that monster was.
“It made sense and I understood what I was up against, what my options were, and it allowed me to make informed decisions,” Mordarski said. “He didn’t throw a bunch of medical jargon at us, and he didn’t say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ It was a conversation.”
That conversation led to Mordarski deciding to have a double mastectomy.
Kiluk said cancer care and treatment ultimately lies with the patient, and he respects the informed decisions his patients make.
“These are very personal decisions and there is no wrong or right,” Kiluk said. “We are all different on this planet and what brings me peace is a lot different than what brings you peace. No one has more invested in these decisions than the patient.”
After her double mastectomy, Mordarski recovered at her mother’s and then underwent immunotherapy in Miami. Today, there is no evidence of disease and she is on maintenance treatment until the end of 2023.
Kiluk credits Mordarski’s self-awareness with the success of her treatment.
“No one knows your body better than you,” Kiluk said. “Medicine can be really hard and I need as much help as I can get. By being aware of increased risks and having her check herself saved her life.”
And Mordarski will continue to be self-aware, even after her maintenance care. She’s focused on her mental health and has returned to her life in Miami, focusing on doing things she loves like scuba diving and riding horses, while also making new connections.
“I’ve gotten back into the dating scene and, honestly, having survived cancer is like a vetting system for me,” she laughed. “Guys that are uncomfortable with my candor and experience probably would have been the ones that would have run at a diagnosis.”