Two-time cancer patient advises women to advocate for themselves and to keep hope alive

October 18, 2022
a woman with nearly bald head and bright pink shirt laughs
Danielle Lee advises women to know the signs of breast cancer, and she encourages other women with breast cancer to stay hopeful. Photos by Kristin Lee

When Danielle Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36, it was her second go-round with cancer. The first time, a decade earlier, she had survived leukemia.

How, with no family history of cancer, she ended up a two-time winner of this dubious distinction, she has no idea. What she does know is that her family, her friends, her hair salon clientele and staff, her prayer army and her doctors and nurses at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center have been instrumental in her recovery.

“I’m definitely a walking miracle – for sure,” she said.

Lee, who lives in Conway, first felt something was off earlier this year. She was having chest pain and ended up in a local hospital with an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.

But she thought there was more to it. She could feel something in her breast. The doctors said it was only a cyst, but Lee wanted a mammogram. With the screening facility still trying to catch up from the COVID backlog, she wasn’t going to be able to get in right away. But Lee persisted.

“I called and called every day. I said, ‘Look, something is wrong,’” she recalled.

Lee’s intuition was right. Only about 9% of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. each year are in women under the age of 45, and Lee became one of those cases. She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Later testing also showed that she had triple negative breast cancer, a type that is more common in younger women and that is also more aggressive.

She met with a surgeon in Conway, who immediately referred her to Hollings.

“The surgeon looked at me, and he was like, ‘With your history’ – since I had had a previous cancer of leukemia – ‘I’m not your doctor. You need to go to Hollings Cancer Center. They’re going to be the best doctors you can get with how complicated your case could turn into,’” she said.

Two days later, Lee was at Hollings, and from there, her treatment plan took off.

Lee first underwent a 12-week round of neoadjuvant chemotherapy, or chemotherapy intended to shrink the tumor in preparation for surgery. Triple negative breast cancer patients would usually undergo a second round before surgery, but Lee couldn’t do that because of the chemotherapy she had received when she had leukemia. Nonetheless, her doctors were pleased at how much the tumor shrank.

After chemotherapy, Lee opted for a double mastectomy.

Knowing that triple negative breast cancer has a high recurrence rate, Lee wanted to do everything possible to reduce the risk that it would return.

“Of course, with me battling cancer twice, I wanted to do anything and everything I could do to not have to worry about trying to fight this battle again,” she said.

two women side hug and pose for the camera in a garden 
Danielle Lee's mom, Gail Wood, accompanied her to treatments so that her husband could concentrate on their daughter.

In September, Lee began five weeks of radiation to “clean up” any lingering circulating cancer cells. While she did radiation treatments, Monday through Friday, she and her mom stayed at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge across the street from Hollings and then returned to her family – her husband, 8-year-old daughter and adult stepson – on the weekends.

“I’m able to stay at the Hope Lodge, and it has just been a blessing to my family to not have to be on the road,” she said.

While there, she also took advantage of the cancer-focused physical therapy offered at Hollings. She said she was surprised by how much the surgery affected her pectoral muscles. Suddenly, simple acts like sweeping the floor in her hair salon or shampooing someone’s hair became nearly impossible because of how sore her muscles were.

“That’s my goal. I want to be able to stand behind a chair and be able to sweep the floor,” she said.

Lee feels lucky to be surrounded by a loving, supportive community.

“My clients and staff have been amazing. They have been so kind to me and have just stood by me through my journey,” she said. 

“If you have a feeling that something is not right, definitely take that and run with it. Be an advocate for yourself because if you’re not an advocate for yourself, nobody is going to be.”

Danielle Lee

She describes her mom as her “right-hand person.” Her sisters and father have been there for her and, of course, her husband, who has struggled with his own fears for her while working to remain strong and steady.

“I’m blessed with a family that has supported me through this just unconditionally,” she said.

Looking back at her journey thus far, Lee said it’s important for women to know the signs of breast cancer and to stand up for themselves. For instance, Lee felt a lump in the 12 o’clock position of her breast. At first, she thought it might just be a pulled muscle because she thought that tumors would show up in the bottom of the breast or near the lower armpit. In actuality, cancerous lumps are most likely to occur in the upper outer quadrant of the breast – exactly where Lee’s was.

She advises other women to listen to their bodies and advocate for themselves.

“If you have a feeling that something is not right, definitely take that and run with it,” she said. “Be an advocate for yourself because if you’re not an advocate for yourself, nobody is going to be.”

And she encourages other cancer patients to keep going.

“The biggest advice I would tell somebody else going through breast cancer is to not give up hope and to not give up your faith because there is light at the end of the tunnel there,” she said. “There are days that you’re going to think there is no light, and there are days that you’re going to want to give up. But you’ve got to remember all the things that you’re fighting for.

“And when you can look back and say, ‘Dang, that’s what I’ve come through?’ I mean, that just gives you chills within itself. To know that you conquered this and you’re a survivor – that’s huge.”