How a Breast Cancer Diagnosis Led to a Life-Changing Wellness Journey

Melissa Spells shares her determination to stay healthy and lose weight after beating breast cancer, with the support of a wellness program at NewYork-Presbyterian.

Melissa Spells lost 100 pounds after undergoing breast cancer treatment at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and remains committed to living a healthy lifestyle.

Travis Curry/Weill Cornell Medicine

I had struggled with obesity for much of my adult life, and in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I decided to take charge of my health and start on a six-month process of preparing for bariatric surgery. But in January 2021, I had to put those plans on hold.

After my annual mammogram, I got a phone call saying that they had found a lump in my left breast. A sonogram and biopsy confirmed my fear: I had breast cancer. Since I knew that obesity is associated with cancer, I was not shocked, but the news confirmed that I needed to make lifestyle changes to live my healthiest life, despite my diagnosis.

I knew that I would have to find the best doctors and nurses to work with on a game plan to tackle the cancer, which was luckily caught at Stage 1. After doing a search online, I chose The Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Between February and April, I had a total of three surgeries to remove the cancer. I was very stiff after the procedures but as part of the care services of the breast surgery program, I was partnered with Fran Conway, a registered nurse and yoga instructor, to do gentle therapeutic yoga. That was the beginning of a realization for me that movement — even if they’re simple movements — was going to be something that I was going to incorporate in my life moving forward.

I also needed guidance in improving my eating habits, and met with Emily Buchholtz, a registered dietician and nutritionist who is a certified specialist in oncology nutrition. Emily took time to understand my eating habits and considered what I like to eat and how I could replace certain foods with healthier alternatives.

By the end of June 2021, I had completed radiation therapy and started taking an oral medication that reduces breast cancer risk, which I will be on for the next three years. That month, my breast cancer care also transitioned to Dr. Lauren Elreda, an oncologist and hematologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

I was now a breast cancer survivor, so I asked myself: “What could I do to reduce my chances of a breast cancer re-occurrence?” To help me with my wellness goals, Dr. Elreda connected me to the Breast Cancer and Obesity Lifestyle Development (BOLD) Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. The program, which Dr. Elreda leads with other doctors, aims to empower women to meet their weight loss goals, lower their breast cancer risk, and improve their overall health. The team showed me ways to remain healthy, providing me with meal plans and emphasizing the importance of exercise.

Today, my diet consists of lean protein and fresh vegetables — very different from the fast food I used to eat every day. I also now find joy in going to the gym and running on the treadmill. Before, I could not walk three minutes.

When I first joined the BOLD program, I was not sure if I should move forward with having bariatric surgery, but Dr. Elreda encouraged me to have it done. Towards the end of 2021, I had the surgery to end the year on a strong note.

In making the change to live healthier, I believe I am kicking the pants out of breast cancer re-occurrence. I have lost over 100 pounds since I started my journey and do my part in keeping my weight under control.

I am not going to say that I have breezed through my wellness or weight loss journey. But I found peace in my spirituality and in Jesus, who always gave me strength.

And Dr. Elreda is always there to encourage and empower me and reminds me of why I am on the journey. She centers me and gives me pep talks, which helps me get right back on track. She is not only like a mentor to me, she’s like family.

It takes a village to support a cancer patient and I am glad I chose NewYork-Presbyterian as my village. All the doctors I have met have been supportive and have encouraged me spiritually and physically. Every day, I feel a sense of gratitude and look forward to being the best me I can be.

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