Calhoun High School alumna Elizabeth Fitzpatrick was showering in March when she felt an olive-sized lump in her right breast. An ultrasound determined the mass was a cluster of “complicated cysts” that were “probably benign,” she said, but given her age — 24 — and a lack of family history, she was told to return for a follow-up in six months.
The lump, however, quadrupled in size by June. A radiologist recommended a routine biopsy, but Fitzpatrick was assured she had nothing to worry about. Then, on June 25, she received the call with her results — the mass was triple-negative breast cancer (see box).
To say she was shocked at the news was the “understatement of the century,” Fitzpatrick, of Merrick, said. “Having cancer during a pandemic is definitely a tricky situation.”
Because of her diagnosis, she maintains more social distance than most. As a speech pathologist for St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital, Fitzpatrick typically makes house calls to see patients, but “going into other people’s homes when you’re immunocompromised is not ideal.
“I was definitely very surprised and wasn’t sure what to think,” she added, “but I immediately went into fixer mode to figure out how to fix this.”
Fitzpatrick’s aunt connected her with a surgeon at NYU Langone in Manhattan, where she started chemotherapy. She had her first treatment on July 30, and now goes every other week. She will start weekly treatments Sept. 1. “Chemo does drain you a lot,” she said, “but luckily I’ve had more good days than bad.”
She also started a blog, “Fighting for the Girls,” to share her journey with other young women battling similar diagnoses. She wrote, “Breast cancer has always been thought of as ‘an older woman’s cancer,’ but that’s simply not true anymore. The idea that ‘someone in their 20s can’t get breast cancer’ is dangerous and antiquated.”
“My whole goal of sharing my story is to let other women know they’re not alone,” Fitzpatrick said.
Selling shells, making strides
Annie Fitzpatrick spent the early days of summer collecting seashells at the beach — which she has long done — and one day painted a few of them with her friend Maddy Colapinto. Two days later, she found out about her older sister’s diagnosis.
Along with their friend Isabelle Latham, the trio of 12-year-olds got together to figure out how they could help Elizabeth in her fight, and so Lizzie’s Army was born (see box). They had already planned to start a shell business, Annie said, but suddenly their vision had greater purpose.
“We had our first stand on a Monday afternoon [in July] with a set goal of $60,” Annie said. “Then this one stranger bought one shell and gave us $100 — that was the start of our business.” The girls made $478 that day.
Fitzpatrick found out about the initial shell stand while browsing Annie’s Instagram page. “When I read what she had written up, and saw the pictures, I instantly started crying,” she said. “It is the sweetest thing in the world.”
Lizzie’s Army has held four other sales since then and started a GoFundMe page, raising nearly $9,000 for breast cancer research to date. They brought in $6,000 during a single shell sale earlier this month, and when the owners of Doughology in Lynbrook heard about the girls’ efforts, they decided to help out, too — donating the proceeds from their monthly “Spin & Save” fundraiser to the cause.
They also gained the attention of News12 Long Island — the story was featured in an “On a Positive Note” segment. “It’s so amazing that a small little shell business has turned into this big thing,” Maddy said.
Isabelle wanted supporters to know, “You’re never too young to make a change and a difference — you should always try and make your mark.”
“I’m ridiculously proud of all of them,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve never felt as much love and support as I’ve felt in the past few weeks.”
She added that the News12 story resulted in an outpouring of “overwhelming support” from people across Long Island, particularly breast cancer survivors. The community she has found through her diagnosis is helping her through it, she said.
Fitzpatrick will receive chemotherapy treatments until the beginning of December. To follow her journey, visit https://fight4thegirls.wordpress.com/. To donate to Lizzie’s Army, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/lizzies-army.