In 2015, Mitzi Antonio had everything going for her. She was a mother of a 5-year-old and a newlywed, Ph.D. student and real-life NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) agent.
The family just moved from Italy to Hawaii. Her skies were blue and horizons clear until a routine doctor’s visit changed all that.
“I was 40 and we had just moved to Hawaii. I finally found a doctor that I loved. My mom is a nurse here, so I’ve been told all my life that when you turn 40, you get a mammogram. When I mentioned it, the doctor said we could wait for the guidelines to change,” she said. “But during the exam she found a lump and then I felt it.
From there it was straight to the biopsy, which proved a harrowing experience. And the results were even better – it was cancer. Although Antonio was optimistic, it was – of course – an incredibly difficult time.
She endured six months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor so it could be removed. She then underwent radiation therapy every week for a year. It took a huge toll on her, physically, mentally and emotionally.
“I think the hardest thing was that I still wanted to have more children … and after many tests and discussions, I wasn’t able to,” she said. “Losing my hair was also difficult. I had hair down to my waist. My son was crying and asking if he was going to lose his hair.”
During her treatment, Antonio kept his friends and family, who lived 1,000 miles away, updated through CaringBridge and Facebook accounts. One of the reasons she felt compelled to share her journey was to help other women who may be walking the same path.
“I’ve always been open about my cancer journey. I wanted to share what I was going through so they wouldn’t be afraid. Many people have reached out to me saying that my story has affected them. Some of them have made appointments with their doctor because a lot of people don’t go every year like we should,” she said.
As someone who is looking for answers, Antonio decided to undergo testing to try to better understand how the cancer developed.
“I mean, I had no family history of it. After I was diagnosed, I had genetic testing done and discovered I had a rare immune system gene that was inactive,” she said.
“But as a special agent I got into a lot of toxic places in Italy. In fact, I was one of seven agents who came from Italy with some form of cancer. It was an environmental threat that triggered this gene.”
Fortunately, Antonio made it to the other side. After treatment, work brought her back home to the Golden Isles. It was there that she ran into one of her high school teachers, Rhonda Barlow, who was also a breast cancer survivor.
“I ran into her and Peggy Tuten on First Friday. That’s when they asked me if I wanted to be in the (American Cancer Society) fashion show,” she said. “I said sure I’d do anything to help raise awareness.”
This year, she will join eight other local survivors for the American Cancer Society’s annual Breast Cancer Fashion Show. It is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 11 at Sea Palms, 515 N. Windward Drive,
Lunch will be served along with silent auctions and raffles. But the main event is cheering on the models.
For Joy Cook, event chairwoman, it’s the best part of the day.
“I feel like a fashion show is a celebration of life. I think that’s certainly true for models, but they also give hope to so many other people who may be going through cancer… not just breast cancer,” she said.
A cancer survivor herself, Cook knows how important this can be. Since she started in 2013, she therefore put all her energy into the organization of the event.
“I started as a volunteer at the American Cancer Society office. I was asked if I could chair the event in 2013 … I’ve done it every year since then,” Cook said.
“We start planning it at least six months in advance. We will decide when we will have it and start asking for donations and sponsorships. We are so blessed that Glynn County steps forward every year to help us.”