Bride celebrates the start of a new life after breast cancer

October 11, 2023
a woman smooths a white veil as she stands in a shop surrounded by wedding dresses
Wendy Arnaudo squeezed in dress fittings at Bridal House of Charleston in Mount Pleasant in between cancer treatment appointments at Hollings. Photo by Kristin Lee

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Wendy Arnaudo is down two breasts but up a husband and two stepsons.

The breasts weren’t doing much for her, she said. But the man? A man who will propose while you’re in the middle of chemo treatments has demonstrated his loyalty and character. She knew without a doubt she wanted to share her life with him.

On Oct. 7, Wendy said “I do.” She and her new husband, Todd Hill, have already experienced the “worse” part of “for better or for worse,” after Wendy endured chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy to treat her stage 3c breast cancer. Through it all, her main focus was doing whatever she needed to do to get through it.

“I'm only 40. This is not what I wanted at 40. I have so much more life to live, and my family lives forever – my grandparents are 92 and 98!” she said. “I'm not letting this get to me. I was like, ‘I want more life to live.’”

New home, new state, new diagnosis

Wendy knew about recommendations that women should start getting annual mammograms at age 40. But she and Todd had moved to Chapin, South Carolina, from Virginia with the boys and were getting them settled into school and a new routine when she turned 40, so it was several months later, in May 2022, when she finally made an appointment for the following month.

As it happened, she was sitting on the couch one day with one arm overhead when her other hand brushed against her armpit and felt something.

“I was like, ‘Huh. That’s odd.’”

She called her local hospital to see if she could move up her mammogram appointment but was told there were no openings. She didn’t say that she had felt something, rationalizing that the appointment was only a month away.

a couple smiles in an ourdoor setting 
Wendy and Todd. Photo provided

The mammogram did indeed reveal something suspicious, which led to an ultrasound and then a biopsy. The biopsy confirmed what Wendy knew in her gut – she had cancer.

Still new to South Carolina, she and Todd weren’t sure where to turn. Neighbors offered a few recommendations, including MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, and Wendy decided to make the trip for a consultation that July.

Hollings turned out to be the right choice, despite the long drive.

“It was an easy decision for us to make because we knew we were getting what we felt was the best care from the best team,” she said.

“Probably the best thing about it was the team aspect,” Wendy continued. She worked with nurse navigator Melanie Wilson, R.N., an oncology certified nurse, who ensured that Wendy would see all of her providers during a visit, making the most of the two-hour trip from Chapin to Charleston.

“You sit at Hollings and your coordinator – and I just love Melanie – helps you facilitate and get all those doctors in while you sit. You’re the show, right? You are the star of the show, and they are there to help you. Between oncology, surgery, radiation, genetics – it was great. Considering you’re in a whirlwind of ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’ you get all these doctors to come to you.”

Genetic testing and treatment

Under the care of Frank Brescia, M.D., Wendy embarked on 16 weeks of chemotherapy treatment to shrink the tumor ahead of surgery, including four weeks on the “red devil,” doxorubicin.

“My hair was hanging on, and then they gave me the red devil, and it disappeared,” she said.

She also had genetic testing, which is standard for all breast cancer patients at Hollings. Because genetic mutations can run in families, test results can alert other family members that they should get tested. And some mutations raise the risk for more than one type of cancer so, even after treatment for the diagnosed cancer, the patient can continue to work with the Hollings Hereditary Cancer Clinic to reduce the risk of another cancer.

For Wendy, although she wasn’t sure about genetic testing at first, because she’d already decided on a double mastectomy, the procedure proved helpful. She tested positive for the PALB2 gene mutation, which put her at increased risk of breast cancer and confirmed her decision to remove both breasts.

Though she was confident in her decision, it was odd, nonetheless, to be without breasts for the first time since puberty, especially since she was bald at the same time.

“You don’t realize how much balance your breasts give you,” she laughed. “I have a tush on me, so it’s like the balance is off.”

two couples pose in a hospital hallway 
Wendy, Todd, and Wendy's parents. Wendy said her breast cancer journey was a group effort; she couldn't have gotten through it without Todd, her family and her friends. Photo provided

Andrea Abbott, M.D., performed the mastectomy in January, which included the removal of 30 lymph nodes, six of which were found to have cancer. Wendy then had lymphatic reconstruction surgery in February to reduce her risk of lymphedema, a painful swelling caused by fluid buildup when the lymphatic system is damaged. To further decrease her risk, she met with Renee Garrison, PT, a certified lymphedema therapist at Hollings, who taught her lymphatic drainage massage techniques.

After recovering from surgery, Wendy then began 28 radiation therapy sessions at Lexington Medical Center.

Sharing her story

Wendy is not a social media person. It’s just in her nature to be more private, and so she didn’t blast her diagnosis to the world. She did tell her job as well as family and close friends.

Those who know and love her jumped in to help – whether it was her parents or friends flying in to care for her, new friends in Chapin driving her to Charleston for treatment when Todd couldn’t or a longtime mentor and friend, herself a breast cancer survivor, sharing words of encouragement.

“I would never say it was a ‘me’ journey. I would always say it’s a ‘we’ journey because I could not have made it through the day-to-day without Todd. I couldn’t do it without him, and I couldn’t do it without the support of my friends,” she said. “I never felt like I was alone.”

But with most of that journey behind her – she’s still taking a targeted therapy drug to reduce the risk of recurrence – she started to think about how she could encourage other women who might be in the same position that she was in in July 2022.

Everyone’s journey is different, she knew. But having gotten through it, she wanted to tell others that they could do it, too.

“Make sure you listen to your body; that’s the biggest thing,” she said. “Make sure you have a mission to stay healthy and don’t get caught up in all the other stuff. And lean on other people.”

a woman wearing a bridal veil and regular day clothes looks at herself in full length mirror in a bridal shop 
Wendy tried on her veil the week before her wedding at Bridal House of Charleston. Photo by Kristin Lee

The physical, mental and spiritual all contributed to her outcome, she believes.

“Positivity, my faith and my diet have made a huge impact on my outlook and outcome while knowing I was in the care of an amazing team at MUSC,” she said.

Wendy said she feels pretty good, all things considered. She’s getting used to her new curly hair (her younger stepson said he likes it better than her old hair) and looking forward to having the uncomfortable tissue expanders removed and reconstructive surgery in December. As someone who was accustomed to being able to work out five days a week, she’s also getting used to the limitations of what her body can do right now.

“There are times I get frustrated, but I have to look at the big view,” she said. “I was able to get married. I'm able to enjoy my life with my husband and our family – my niece is only 2 years old. I get to travel again.

“I'll take the discomfort in order to live a regular life."