No question about it. Sarah Mantovani is one tough cookie, a resolute and unwavering warrior. Once she sets her sights, she becomes single-minded in her pursuit, not allowing anything to stop her - not even cancer.
A 1994 Yosemite High graduate, and daughter of Nancy McPherson and Larry Buckenberger, Mantovani, 39, was nearing her final year in veterinary school last September when she was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), a rare and extremely aggressive cancer with a dismal prognosis.
“I was in the middle of my Exotic Medicine rotation and was getting ready to give a snake an enema when I got the phone call,” Mantovani said. “I remember exactly how my doctor sounded. She made a big sigh and started the conversation with ‘It’s not good news.’ I got a chill from my head to my toes, and just quietly listened as she explained the results of my biopsy. When she was finished, all I could get out was, ‘I need to go, I have a snake that needs an enema.’”
Mantovani immediately stepped in a faculty office and broke down into tears, barely able to repeat the word, “cancer.” Sitting there sobbing, comforted by three women doctors she barely knew, she worried how she would tell her husband and her family.
Her mother remembers all too well the moment she heard the news.
“Sarah’s mammogram showed nothing, however, an ultrasound showed cysts or tumors where she had felt the lump. They did a biopsy the next day ... when I heard the results, I couldn’t believe my child had a life-threatening disease that might not be curable,” McPherson recalled.“I thought about all her dreams, her plans, how hard she had worked to get into vet school. I felt angry ... I didn’t know what to do to make it all better, how to be strong for her. I’d always told her the only way to get through hard times was one step at a time. Now I had to practice what I had preached.”
While there were no specific drugs available for this type of cancer, there were many promising drugs in the trial phase. Initially, Mantovani decided to enter in a TNBC clinical trial, but after she had received just two infusions, the trial abruptly ended because a few patients had developed liver problems. So, Mantovani found herself with no alternative other than resorting to traditional treatments of weekly chemotherapy.
During her medical journey, she had plenty of support, from a professor who made it possible for her to complete her last few rotations while in treatment, to her family, her friends, and her husband, Fabio, who she calls her true partner in life. Daily, he would ask her questions: “Did you eat, did you exercise, are you rested,” followed by “because I want to grow old with you.”
In between her studies and clinical work at University of California, Davis, Mantovani underwent 10 months of five different types of chemotherapy and surgery, followed by 25 rounds of radiation.
While in treatment and suffering through debilitating side effects, she managed to graduate, and pass the national and state board exams, becoming a licensed Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. She recently began her professional career in a Martinez veterinary hospital.
Pronounced “cured” by her surgeon, Mantovani’s experience, forever etched in her memory, has prompted her and Fabio to become more proactive.
In November, the couple will participate in the Susan G. Komen three-day, 60-mile walk in San Diego to cure breast cancer. The money raised by team Mantovani will “pay it forward,” hoping for a cure for the thousands diagnosed with breast cancer each year.
“With the right care and right support, this is a beatable disease,” Mantovani said. “The organizations I’ve chosen to support allocate money helping women get early screenings, offer financial support for those dealing with this cancer, and funds research to help develop better treatments. Of course sometimes cancer wins, but lack of access to the right care should not be a reason for that.”
Mantovani was diagnosed in Sept. 2015, and her final round of radiation was June 13 of this year. For the next five years, she will go in every six months alternating between mammograms and MRIs, and will continue with her monthly self-exams. She has also enrolled in a post-treatment clinical trial that uses liquid biopsies to monitor blood for circulating cancer cells in an effort to identify metastases as early as possible.
“I was just thinking today about how I’ve really had a change in perspective after all this,” Mantovani said. “I used to be really focused on what was coming up next, often forgetting to appreciate how wonderful the present can be. Now I just try to soak up every moment, happy or sad, to just appreciate the experiences.”
“I’m so in awe of Sarah’s strength,” McPherson said. “She has taken this fight on and made it through with a positive attitude and a big, beautiful smile. We were all very frightened, but she was determined she could beat this. She rarely let it bring her down. She decided right from the start she wasn’t going to give in to cancer. She researched the best treatments, diet, support groups, and took this fight on, full bore. I think that spirit helped her heal. She was truly a Wonder Woman.”
While she may be armed with Wonder Woman’s strength and endurance, Mantovani credits her mom for her upbeat can-do attitude and determined spirit.
“It was pretty much the two of us for most of my life, and somehow as a single mom, she navigated even the most impossible times,” Mantovani recalled. “I spent time racking my brain after my diagnosis. Did I do something to cause it? Did I eat wrong, not process stress properly? Then I remembered what my mom always taught me, and decided it didn’t matter ... spending time on it and blaming myself was not going to help cure me ... moving forward was my only option.”
To donate to the Mantovani team in the Susan G. Komen walk to cure breast cancer, see www.the3day.org/goto/bucksvscancer.