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Amelia Cox:
How Cancer Taught the Teacher What Mattered Most

By Genevieve Branco

Amelia Cox chooses how she spends her time wisely, now that she’s realized how precious time really is. I guess in some weird way we can thank cancer for that. Like many who gain the sobering realization that life is short when they have a brush with tragedy, Amelia is walking out of this experience thankful that it helped her learn that making conscious decisions about how you want to spend your time is not only okay, but it’s priceless.  Amelia was diagnosed with triple negative, stage three breast cancer two years ago when she was just 35. Today she’s cancer free, grounded in grit, and a true inspiration to others. Here’s her story.

Amelia’s mom had breast cancer in her 50s, and although she is living cancer free today, the fact that this had occurred in Amelia’s family made her acutely aware that she needed to complete her regular self-examinations. In fact, Amelia had felt lumps in her breast before, but they had turned out to be benign cysts and nothing to worry about.  But in September 2021, when Amelia felt a lump, this time would be different. She went to a scheduled primary care physician appointment the following week and despite being only 35, the doctor ordered her a mammogram. Within a month she had underwent the mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, all of which showed abnormal cells.

Amelia said that during her mammogram she had a sense that the lump was cancer. She said she just knew. And sure enough, her diagnosis was stage three, triple negative breast cancer in her right breast and lymph nodes. Amelia’s genetic testing did not reveal a link between her mom’s and her cancer.

The early days of Amelia’s diagnosis were challenging because the health insurance that she had at the time was limiting her options for treatment. Fortunately, she was able to purchase a new health insurance policy which allowed her to choose her oncologist and treatment center and get the latest treatment protocol. Once that was straightened out, it began to go fast.

Her treatment began with 16 rounds of chemotherapy. She was a teacher teaching her lessons on a virtual platform and she was able to keep working throughout the chemotherapy, thanks to incredible support from her team of teachers on the days when the chemo hit hardest. She also started immunotherapy and continued it throughout her entire treatment course. When it was time to undergo a mastectomy, in May of 2022, she had her surgery at UCLA. She chose to do a double mastectomy because she knew that her mother’s previous diagnosis could leave her more vulnerable to getting cancer again in the future.   Amelia’s treatment team was very happy with the results of the chemotherapy, as even the cancer in her lymph nodes was dead. At UCLA she was able to undergo her reconstruction during the same surgery. As one surgeon left, the plastic surgeon entered and completed a DIEP flap breast reconstruction. Simply put, a DIEP flap breast reconstruction surgery is when surgeons use skin and fatty tissue from the lower abdomen to reconstruct the breast. This went well for Amelia, except a minor complication in the abdominal healing. When asked if she would do things the same, she said yes, that she was very happy with the results of her treatment course and surgeries. She said it was rough, but she did it.

After surgery, Amelia continued the immunotherapy, and she also did 25 radiation treatments.  Although there is not a lot of research today to tell us whether the radiation is necessary in her situation, the oncologist in Los Angeles advised her to do it if she could tolerate it.  Unfortunately, that was no easy feat for Amelia. The radiation proved to be very difficult for her – she even said that if she had to do one again, chemotherapy or radiation, she would choose the chemo!  You don’t hear that every day, which really speaks to how different each person responds to cancer treatments. Because of how the radiation affected her, she often couldn’t eat and found herself throwing up blood. But again, she handled it, and about three weeks after she finished the radiation, those symptoms resolved.

Unfortunately, Amelia did develop lymphedema which caused arm swelling, pain, and weakness. She had to undergo physical therapy in an outpatient setting and that journey is ongoing. Lymphedema is something that will be a life-long challenge for Amelia, but her symptoms can be managed, and she doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself. As a Christian, Amelia says that she has developed a sense of peace that has helped her face each new challenge. She believes that everything happens for a reason, and she believes in God’s plan for her life.

Amelia wants to share that support is very important when you’re going through something like this. Amelia’s support was innumerable. Friends brought food and gift cards. Her colleagues stepped up and taught her school lessons on difficult days. Her husband, who worked out of town during the week, was an incredible emotional and physical support, even when he was away.  Amelia said she knew it pulled on his heart when he couldn’t be there, but he was strong and supportive and a rock for the family during the challenging time. She was very fortunate that during the week her mother stayed with her and her kids to help while her husband was away. And even her father and stepmother moved back to Bakersfield to offer support, helping her throughout her follow-up appointments.

Amelia also found support in several support groups, from online Facebook groups to the Young Survivors Coalition, to Links for Life Newly Diagnosed virtual meetings. She encourages those effected by cancer to seek out survivor groups because she found them very helpful. Being able to talk to people who have good advice, who have been through similar situations, was essential to helping her move through the process. She said that survivors answering her questions helped her brain to know what treatment she should go through. She also appreciated the grocery card and nutrition program from Links for Life because the money she was able to save on groceries, she was able to use towards copays and other new expenses.

Since her cancer diagnosis, Amelia gave herself permission to be more selective with how she spends her time. For example, she learned during the COVID pandemic that she loved being present with her children and spending her days teaching them, so she still home schools them to this day. Making decisions to choose to focus on the most important things in one’s life can be tricky, as many of us are pulled in a lot of different directions each day, but Amelia shows great bravery to stand firm and keep herself focused on things she chooses to prioritize. Perhaps there is a lesson in there for all of us – and let us not have to go through what Amelia went through before we learn it.