After hair loss, mastectomy and hormone therapy, one breast cancer survivor's story

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Debbie Doubrava learned to no longer take anything for granted — and how could she?

After a breast cancer diagnosis at 33 and a bilateral mastectomy taking both of her breasts, vulnerability is a strangely freeing and beautiful feeling she's come to know.

"There's this incredible humility that comes with having been sick and this recognition that it could be anyone, including yourself, in the next moment who gets a diagnosis," Doubrava said. "That really informs my life."

Keith Fair, left, and Debbie Doubrava are shown at their home in York Township, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Doubrava, who is a breast cancer survivor, celebrated 20 years of being cancer free in January. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

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Now at age 53, Doubrava is a survivor. Though her husband Keith Fair was not in her life at the time of the diagnosis, he has become a part of Doubrava's story and now advocates to support breast cancer research.

Fair, a pastor with St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran, is raising money this month as part of "Real Men Wear Pink" — a campaign hosted by the American Cancer Society in the fight against breast cancer.

A gathering of family and friends at their home in York Township will usher in a night of fundraising. Additionally, anyone can donate straight to the campaign by visiting https://tinyurl.com/mrxh3c88.

"We encounter people every day who were cancer-free until they're not," Fair said. "When they get a diagnosis."

Debbie Doubrava, left, and Keith Fair are shown at their home in York Township, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Doubrava, who is a breast cancer survivor, celebrated 20 years of being cancer free in January. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

This was just the case for Doubrava, who had no family history of breast cancer.

Contrary to what many people might believe, most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Doubrava's diagnosis started with finding a lump in her right breast. She was then diagnosed with stage one breast cancer — and her life was essentially put on pause.

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The dissertation she had been working on toward her doctorate was put on hold. Starting a family with her now-ex husband would have to wait.

Doubrava underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, four rounds of chemotherapy and three years on Tamoxifen — an estrogen-blocking hormone therapy that helps lower the risk of early breast cancer coming back.

"It's medical trauma, it really is," she said. "I was just on the verge of finishing my program and wanting to go into parenthood. It's a terrifying, interesting time to be in as a human being."

A psychotherapist by profession, Doubrava was in a position to put herself first and digest her own trauma.

Particularly, she said, the mastectomy she elected to have was a painful — but necessary — decision.

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"I needed to grieve my breast because it's a body part. But it's also a body part I can live without," she said. "I have never regretted taking both breasts."

Though she feared losing the ability to have children as a result of her medical diagnosis, Doubrava now lives for her two children: her 23-year-old stepdaughter Alice and 9-year-old daughter Gretchen.

After her diagnosis in 2002, Doubrava admitted, it was hard to get her mojo back.

Ultimately, she graduated from Walden University in 2005, completing her doctorate in clinical psychology.

"At this point, I am honored and humbled to have over 30 years providing mental health services to clients of all ages and stages of life," Doubrava said.

The same year, Doubrava traveled to Sri Lanka to participate in Amazon Heart Odyssey — an international fundraising service for young breast cancer survivors.

While there, Doubrava built houses and worked with preschool-age children.

In 2005, Debbie Doubrava traveled to Sri Lanka participate in Amazon Heart Odyssey: an international fundraising service for young breast cancer survivors. In this photo, Doubrava visited a preschool class and showed them her monkey puppet Alex. Photo courtesy: Debbie Doubrava.

In addition to her private practice, Heart Work & Play, Doubrava also published a book this year: "Fertile Love: The Magical Story of How YOU Were Made." As with many parts of her cancer story, Doubrava said she wanted to be candid and open about how fertility posed as a personal challenge for her.

Through the hardships, however, Doubrava remained a positive beacon in the breast cancer world.

"We're all out there wearing our pink and doing well and marching, because not everyone is doing well," she said. "It's still important to keep talking about the stories and raising awareness that not all of us make it."

This article was updated to correct Doubrava's age.