Being treated for breast cancer can be a long and difficult road, and the last thing women want to worry about as they fight their way back to health is a number on the scale. But for some patients, treatment medications cause significant weight gain that needs to be managed.
Heather Stanzini was able to regain control of her weight after a long breast cancer journey with the help of Weight Watchers.
Stanzini, 49, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2007, which caused her to lose her right breast and her hair. The stay-at-home dog mom from Lynchburg, Virginia thought her treatments would cause her to lose weight, but instead found that her medications made her “puffy.”
“Right after I was done with my treatment, I did a raw food diet and I lost a lot of weight really quickly, but then I went back to my old eating habits and it just started coming back on,” says Stanzini.
In an attempt to feel better about her body, Stanzini decided to have her left breast removed as well to be more symmetrical — but her consultation ended up making her feel even worse about herself.
“I sat there in the exam room wearing nothing except a tiny paper vest, and my surgeon came in and began to do nothing short of body shame me,” says Stanzini. “He pointed out how much weight I had gained, and he suggested that since I had one very large breast that I should reconstruct the right side and have a reduction on the remaining breast. And he told me that even removing the left breast would not make me even because there was a lot of fatty tissue now, so I would still be lopsided. I left his office in tears. I was ashamed of my body.”
Fortunately, Stanzini ended up meeting with another surgeon who agreed to perform the left breast mastectomy. The recovery was difficult, and she did not plan on having reconstruction done afterwards.
“I decided that I would be flat and fabulous,” she says. “I thought I knew what I was getting into, but once I healed I looked in the mirror and I was shocked. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I felt like I looked like a prepubescent overweight girl.”
Stanzini became even more self-conscious than she had been before.
“I started hiding behind scarves and ponchos — anything to cover up my flat chest and my protruding belly,” she says. “I was miserable. Then a friend of mine asked me to go to Weight Watchers with her. It was life-changing for me.”
“I’m more active now and I love shopping for clothes,” she says. “I have confidence, self-acceptance, health, happiness and a new enthusiasm for life. Finally, after 10 years of this journey, I am comfortable in my own skin.”
Stanzini has learned to love her post-mastectomy body.
“I love the way I look now,” she says. “I still don’t wear a prosthesis, and I don’t feel like I need to hide the fact that I’m flat-chested. I feel like I finally have embraced my body, with its flaws and everything.”
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Maria Cecilia Mosquera has also maintained her health while undergoing treatment. The 39-year-old actually joined Weight Watchers before her breast cancer diagnosis, but credits the program with helping her get through her difficult treatment regimen.
“I originally joined because I was unhappy with my weight and I wanted to be healthier,” she tells PEOPLE. “I am in the health profession, so I felt like I needed to be healthy and eat healthy and be a role model for my patients.”
The Teaneck, New Jersey-based pediatrician had her whole life turned upside down when she received her breast cancer diagnosis. Mosquera and her husband were planning on moving to Germany in July, and had sold their house and made all the arrangements to move abroad. In May, she went in for a routine check-up to prepare for the move.
“I had no symptoms, no reason to get checked for breast cancer, and I had a mammogram and they found breast cancer,” she says. “We had to find a new place to live, figure out the treatments, find new jobs. Everything was uprooted on top of having to start the treatment process, which is complicated.”
Mosquera — who will finish her chemotherapy next week but still must undergo surgery and IV treatments — says being a member of Weight Watchers has helped her stay healthy through everything.
“I’m so happy I learned all the tools before my diagnosis because I heard how so many people gain weight during breast cancer treatment,” she says. “After my diagnosis, my plan was to be as healthy and possible and use all of the tools that I learned. Gaining weight can make your breast cancer worse and increase the chance of reoccurrence, so I wanted to do everything I could to stay as healthy as possible in the midst of getting treated for breast cancer.”
In addition to helping keep her health on track, her commitment to Weight Watchers has helped her maintain a sense of control.
“Breast cancer treatments are impossible to control — you don’t control the medicines you receive, the side effects. The only thing you can feel in control of is how you eat and how you nourish your body,” she says. “I’ve actually maintained my weight through my chemotherapy regimen. Having more weight makes you more tired, more fatigued, so I feel like I’ve had a good path through this whole therapy, and I know part of it is how I’ve been eating and how I’ve been taking care of my body, and that’s definitely because of all I’ve learned through Weight Watchers.”
Mosquera — who has lost 41 lbs. with Weight Watchers — says having a sense of community has also helped her throughout the treatment process.
“Emotionally, going through breast cancer is not an easy thing,” she says. “There’s an online community called Connect, which is a positive place. Every day I scroll through the posts and it always uplifts my spirits.”