Being a student in itself can present challenges but imagine what it may be like if you’re also told you have a disease that could take your life. This was a reality for both Priscilla Ferreyra ’18 and Janinha Piazzetta ’05 whose lives were devastated with the simple utterance of two words: breast cancer.
“It was January, and you have goals, and you’re planning on graduating that year—everything was aligned,” recalled Ferreyra whose diagnosis came in 2017. She was 25. “I was getting dressed for work and I felt a little lump—being so young, I thought it would go away.”
Ferreyra hadn’t been worried at all because of her age. She didn’t even feel like going to the doctor to get checked, but at the urging of family and friends, she decided to make the appointment. She was devastated with her diagnosis. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, Ferreyra looked forward to finishing strong at FIU and didn’t realize that one appointment would lead to a diverted path in her education.
Like Ferreyra, Piazzetta was in disbelief with her diagnosis. She had spent years caring for multiple family members who lost their battles with cancer. Somehow, she hoped that the disease would skip her—that the universe would be kind—because of her compassionate efforts with family.
“I thought it would never happen to me and I felt the earth kind of swallowing me,” recounted Piazzetta. “At first you cry a lot.”
At the time of her diagnosis in 2004, Piazzetta was uninsured as she pursued her master’s degree in mass communication. With no family in Miami to offer support, she had to rethink her living strategies.
Piazzetta started reaching out and making phone calls to orchestrate a treatment process to save her life. It was this experience with the many roadblocks and a lack of answers and help that spurred her to create a breast cancer support group at a local library—a group that would grow to become her non-profit organization called H3: Health. Hope. Healing.
H3 originally began in July 2007 as a support group to provide women a forum to discuss diagnoses and treatments, as well as offer them education and information on cancer related health issues, described Piazzetta. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, she’s been busy all month organizing a special Zoom open panel discussion that will be held 5:30-6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 28. The panel will offer an in-depth discussion with doctors and patients on what can be done to reduce the high rates of cancer diagnosis and will provide an analysis on the implications of a cancer diagnosis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In terms of support, Piazzetta underscored how pivotal her connections at FIU were in her healing process. She described the many friends she made at the university from classmates to professors, as well as staff members. The yoga team at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus holds a special place in her heart. All of her FIU connections cheered her on and gave her hope. On the day she crossed the convocation stage, her heart was full of gratitude as she looked across the vast room to see the faces of those who had been there for her.
“FIU became my family,” declared Piazzetta who noted her baldness from chemotherapy in her cap and gown photo. Her graduation picture is a badge of pride for surviving and FIU Panther pride for completing her degree.
Ferreyra also sought support from FIU. She too had no family in Miami but remained in the city for her treatment. One of the first things she did after her diagnosis was go to the FIU Disability Resource Center. She knew the center would provide good guidance on next steps for accommodations or pausing her education. There, she spoke with a staff member who was also a cancer survivor.
“Hearing from him was eye opening. It was nice to see him overcome the disease—you see so much negativity online,” she noted and detailed how she also reached out to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Her interest in learning how to help both herself and others, coupled with her bilingualism, helped foster Ferreyra’s relationship with the ACS—a relationship that developed into speaking engagements, a breast cancer awareness campaign in Latin American that aired on the Lifetime Channel, and even a video stateside to promote the organization’s support for research.
When Ferreyra decided to return to school, she chose to enroll in some online courses to allow for the flexibility she needed to receive her daily radiation therapy. This too, she highlighted, afforded her the support she required to get healthy and stay on track. She took her laptop with her and worked on coursework in between appointments—a welcome distraction during a difficult time.
Work to be done
Both women beat cancer. Ferreyra’s biggest dream is to become a journalist to tell people’s stories and to be the voice for those who may not have one. In the meantime, she hopes that through sharing her own story and voice, she can influence the fight against cancer with funding, research and awareness. She wants everyone to know that breast cancer isn’t tied to age—it doesn’t discriminate, she said.
Piazzetta said her degree has helped her in many ways, like creating a vision for her organization, which she wants to expand to make an even greater positive impact in more people’s lives.
“My experience shaped my goals. I really wanted to make a difference,” offered Piazzetta who shared her wisdom for those recently diagnosed: “Remain calm and have hope. Everything is possible in life.”
Priscilla Ferreyra's personal story is highlighted in an American Cancer Society breast cancer awareness video.