“I found out I’m a really tough chick.”
Briana Fiori found a lump in her breast right before Labor Day in 2019. She saw a doctor who reassured her it was probably nothing, but she scheduled a mammogram for the following week anyway.
Thirty-eight-year-old Briana said she actually asked about getting a screening at the age of 35 because of a family history of cancer (despite testing negative for BRCA, the breast cancer gene). Her doctor told her that waiting until she was 40 would be sufficient.
The results of that mammogram was stage three breast cancer.
She said when she found out, her biggest concern was her then 12-year-old son.
“How is he going to deal with this? Was I gonna be around for him? Was this terminal?”
She was also worried about losing her hair, keeping her job and maintaining her new relationship.
“We had only been dating a year, so I was basically giving him an out,” she said of her now-husband Eric. “No one asks for this; I know this isn’t going to be fun.”
Briana said he was devasted, but also told her that he’s not going anywhere.
“He ended up moving in to help care for me after my surgery and during chemo.”
Briana said originally her and her doctors decided to do a double mastectomy to avoid chemotherapy and radiation, then move forward with reconstructive surgery.
But during the mastectomy surgery they found microscopic amounts of cancer in one lymph node, so a full axillary dissection was performed on her left side.
Which then also meant she would have to endure chemo and radiation.
“Chemo wasn’t as bad as I think I thought it was going to be,” said Briana. “I had really great support from my parents.”
She said hair loss was a big concern for her. She did a lot of research on how to keep her hair during cancer treatment and discovered cold-capping. It’s a process where you put ice packs on your scalp which temporarily constricts blood flow to your hair follicles, reducing the amount of the drug that reaches your hair. Briana did this for an hour prior to each chemo treatment and hours afterwards. Her parents came to every single chemo appointment and helped her cold-cap for eight hours.
“That was probably the most exhausting part because it was lot of pressure on my head,” she said. “But I kept 50% of my hair.”
Then the complications started. She got seromas in her left breast (an accumulation of fluid), then infections. She said radiation was also really hard on her.
“I had significant burning, like blisters everywhere on my breasts,” said Briana. “Just to touch them was painful.”
After that, she proceeded with the reconstructive surgery (breast implants). But she fell and an incision popped open. She went to the emergency room and without being administered any pain relief, they stitched her up.
“I remember sitting in that emergency room, just shaking with adrenaline,” she said.
She said that was the start of everything that could possibly have gone wrong, did.
Briana tried hyperbaric chamber treatment daily for 30 days, which healed the wound, but said it was very time-consuming in addition to still working full-time.
Then, she got really sick in February of 2021, and didn’t just dismiss it as COVID. She got tested, which came back negative, and knew it wasn’t influenza either.
A bright red rash took over her chest, and she had a racing pulse so she underwent more testing. The next day, her doctor called her and told her she was septic. Briana was admitted to the hospital and put on high doses of IV antibiotics.
After experiencing a high fever, she went into emergency surgery to have the implant removed.
The hyperbaric treatments started again, and she tried wound vac, but the wound wouldn’t close this time. She was hospitalized several more times for sepsis over the next several months.
“Meanwhile I’m having a four-inch gap in my chest, just an open wound that I had to clean and pack with gauze everyday,” said Briana.
Then she went to Madison for a procedure called a latissimus dorsi flap, although this is a procedure Aurora BayCare offers in Green Bay.
This is the process of taking tissue from a back muscle, tunneling it under your skin to a new location and using it to form a new breast mound. This closed up the hole that she had for the past six months, but she still had to empty a drain.
“This whole time of my existence with breast cancer, I always had drains hanging off of me constantly,” Briana said.
After emptying her drains one morning follow surgery, she said within 10 minutes she had 300 milliliters of blood filled in them again. She thought she was bleeding out, so she called an ambulance and was rushed to the hospital.
Her blood pressure dropped while she continued to lose mass amounts of blood, and even had to be resuscitated.
She was flighted to Madison for revision surgery, which she said went well.
Briana had more infections caused by fluid buildup but said after having a drain from July to almost Christmas, that things have been going pretty well (knocks on wood).
The whole treatment process was October 2019 (double mastectomy) to December 2021.
The most difficult part of her whole breast cancer journey, Briana said, was seeing how it impacted her son.
“He was very stoic, and tried to keep his emotions in,” she said. “He’s very quiet and doesn’t open up to people he doesn’t know, but he had a lot of conversations about it with his dad.”
Throughout this entire journey, Briana said she took it all with a positive attitude and powered through it.
“I found out I’m a really tough chick!” Briana said with a laugh.
Her family and friends have said that she has been an inspiration to them. She set up a Caring Bridge to share her story and give those people experiencing cancer hope.
“They’ve said that seeing my story helped them to be strong through all of their trials,” said Briana.
She said she wants more women to do self-examinations, and if something doesn’t feel right, go get it checked out.
“Push to get one [a mammogram]; don’t wait for somebody else to tell you it’s time.”
To anyone currently going through cancer, Briana said that you’re never alone. There are so many communities out there for support, and finding someone else who is going through the same thing you are is important. Her mom was diagnosed in December of last year and is currently going through treatment.
She stated that breast cancer isn’t like other types of cancer since it affects your body image and how you’re looked at as a woman.
Also, she said to lean on people you know.
“If people want to help you, let them help you,” she said.
Briana said that the emotions and the feelings and everything that goes along with cancer are forever.
“Clothes will never fit me the same now.”
When asked if she had advice for anyone who knows someone going through breast cancer, Briana said responding to a breast cancer patient who is afraid of losing her breasts by saying, “You’ll just get implants and have these great perky breasts,” is not helpful or appropriate. She said it’s easy for someone to say that, but it’s different when you actually have to live through that and make difficult decisions like that.
Her goal for the future is to continue to get stronger and get back to being healthy.
She also wants to have a consultation about either taking out her other implant and being flat on both sides of her chest or having the DIEP flap surgery (a type of reconstruction that uses a woman’s own tissue to create a new breast).
“I thought I would never have any other surgeries after I almost died,” Briana said. “But I don’t want to live looking like this for the rest of my life.”
Born and raised in Green Bay, Briana graduated from Marquette University and works at United HealthCare in workforce management leading a 14-person team.
Her hobbies are gardening and canning (making homemade tomato juice and pasta sauce), boating and spending a lot of time with family including visiting her parents in Florida.
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