Five years ago, Lindy Cellucci could not have imagined that she would one day be speaking on behalf of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or that the focus of her advocacy would be the one thing she spent years trying to ignore: her weight.
“I had never had a mammogram because I was fat,” said Cellucci, a breast cancer survivor. “I thought it would hurt because I was 300 pounds.”
Not having mammograms was part of Cellucci’s pattern of a lack of self-care, something the now-61-year-old associates with being, in her own words, “morbidly obese.”
Cellucci said she avoided doctors because she knew exactly what they would say. “You need to lose weight, your blood pressure is high, you are going to have a stroke or a heart attack. I knew it all — but I wanted to be in denial.”
What Cellucci didn’t know is that obesity impacts breast cancer in part because overweight women are less likely to get screening. A 2019 study in Oncology Reports said, “A meta-analysis of 16 studies addressed the relationship between body mass index and mammography in women aged (over) 40 and found that overweight women were less likely than normal-weight women to have had a mammogram in the prior two years.”
In addition, studies show that achieving a normal weight may improve screening mammography performance.
Dr. Colin Mar, the medical director for the B.C. Cancer Breast Screening Program, said providing equitable access for those with barriers of any kind is a high priority for the program. “T here are many barriers people face with coming for a screening mammogram and we encourage them to contact us so we can reassure them.”
Mar said he would encourage anyone with an accessibility issue or concern to mention it when they make their appointment so staff can accommodate them.
Mar said obesity is one of many recognized risk factors associated with breast cancer, but said it is not simply a body weight issue. “Obesity is a complex entity. Maintaining an active lifestyle is important, and then secondly, maintaining a healthy weight.”
In 2014, while on a road trip with some friends, Cellucci had a wake-up call about her lifestyle. She wasn’t able to make the climb down to the beach in New Brunswick to see their fabled Hopewell Rocks — something that was on her bucket list. “I watched them from the top as they were taking pictures on the ocean floor. I was crying and I was embarrassed and ashamed, and I said, ‘It’s time. I’ve got to get this (weight) off.’”
Cellucci joined Weight Watchers and over the next year lost 85 pounds.
During a walk in brisk air one winter day, Cellucci tucked her hands under her arms to warm them up, and felt something. “I found the lump because I’d lost the weight,” said Celluci.
“Breast cancer was nowhere in my family. When I talked to my oncologist and asked why did I get it, he said, ‘Probably because you were morbidly obese.’”
Cellucci’s treatments included surgery, radiation, chemo and steroids. The steroids made her gain weight. By the time she was given the all clear in 2017, she was back to her starting weight. So she got out her Fitbit and went back to Weight Watchers. The weight came off again. After losing approximately 150 lbs., Cellucci shared her story with Fitbit.
Fitbit shared her story with People magazine, and Cellucci ended up on the January 2020 cover of the publication’s “Half Their Size” issue.
Now she hopes that others will get their breast cancer mammography screening — no matter what their size. And she would like to see an end to the stigma associated with being overweight — stigma that contributed to her avoidance of medical professionals.
“When I was fat, I wouldn’t get my hair done, I didn’t fix my teeth, I didn’t wear makeup because society told me why bother? I think there should be more acceptance from society, but there are other things that go along with obesity, and that’s the health issue.”