When Ann Caruso was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, her devastation was quickly overtaken by resolve.
After processing her shock and sadness, the hardworking celebrity stylist decided to approach her diagnosis with the same focus and determination she brings to her work.
“At first it was very devastating but then after that I decided to think about treatment as the most important job I ever had,” Caruso tells PEOPLE.
This attitude helped her get through a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and endocrine therapy – and helped her feel in control of her unpredictable disease.
“You have to be your own advocate,” Caruso says. “Get second and third opinions and then get your team together.”
Five years after her first diagnosis, Caruso’s cancer came back. She underwent radiation therapy and then more surgeries.
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The physical changes treatment brought only compounded its emotional toll. Caruso underwent 12 cancer-related surgeries. The woman who had made a career of helping others dress to feel and look their best now had to use those skills for herself in a way that she had never imagined.
“Being a fashion person made it even more challenging because you become so particular about how you see yourself,” she says.
Dressing for an ever-changing body, she explains, is “all about trial and error.”
“If you’re shopping online and you find something you like then you should try it,” she says. “I imagined what other women with different body shapes looked good in and then I tried it myself.”
“You just have to think about yourself in a different way and start adjusting to it,” she says.
Now, nearly nine years after her first diagnosis, Caruso has become an ardent supporter of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
“Being involved with the BCRF and advocating for something that is so important has brought great joy into my life,” she says. “The work of the BCRF researchers saved my life so I’m going to do anything and everything I can to help support their work.”