Patient Story

Healing from Cancer through Positivity and Portraits

Melissa Wieleba

After moving from Atlanta to Buffalo in fall 2015, Melissa Wieleba was just starting to settle into her new southern lifestyle. But later in November, her everyday life took a pivot from the norm. She noticed a small lump on her left breast and immediately scheduled an appointment with Dr. Dominik Kissing, her Northside Hospital OBGYN. A mammogram and ultrasound scan later, the lump turned out to be one of two – she had a cyst in her right breast and an unidentifiable bump in her left.

A quick biopsy revealed the cyst was benign and could easily be removed. The left bump, however, had a different diagnosis. Melissa sat in shock as she heard the words “breast cancer” echo through the room. Emotionally stunned, she let the news sink in several days before visiting Dr. Kimberly Lairet, a surgeon at Northside Hospital. Dr. Lairet soon referred her to Dr. Amelia Zelnak, a surgical oncologist at Northside Hospital.

Melissa met with Dr. Zelnak in December 2015. Her cancer appeared to be a stage 2 breast cancer and hadn’t spread to lymph nodes yet. Dr. Zelnak and Dr. Lairet proposed a full mastectomy, but no radiation and chemotherapy, helping Melissa digest the severity of her diagnosis.

However during surgery, Melissa’s cancer showed its true face: she had a stage 3 lobular carcinoma which had spread to one of her lymph nodes. After Melissa woke from surgery, her doctors encouraged she receive chemotherapy.

Adamant to avoid chemo at first, Melissa’s family pleaded her to reconsider. Understanding the importance of the process, she agreed with her team. And because her tumor was larger than 6 centimeter, she also required radiation treatments.

After four rounds of chemo and subsequent radiation behind her, Melissa was ready for reconstruction surgery. Her plastic surgeon, Dr. Christopher Killingsworth, used a combination of implants and latissimus (pulling skin from the back to the front) to create her new breast. Two weeks after her reconstructive procedure, Melissa began working at Northside Hospital as an ICU tech, eager to regain some normalcy and give back to the hospital that saved her life.

Melissa was officially in remission by October 2016. Now in August 2018, she’s living in perfect health. But even at prime of health, the emotional scars still exist within. For that reason, Melissa was recommended to participate in an arts activity for cancer survivors.

The Feel Beautiful Today’s Warrior Within portrait session is an art and health program, aimed at helping cancer survivors share their journeys and heal. The photo shoot offered Melissa a chance to recapture herself and celebrate her victory.

The best piece of advice she can offer others battling cancer is to stay positive. “A positive attitude helps out immensely.” She’s proud to be a resource for other women going through similar things and offer the guidance and reassurance she can, beyond the work of the Northside cancer teams.

*The health story shared here may portray atypical results of survival for this type of cancer, given its severity and stage. Atypical results are considered surviving a cancer that has less than a 50 percent five-year survival rate. Patients should consult an expert to discuss specific treatment plans and the possible outcomes before making medical decisions.

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