Longtime nurse becomes a patient after breast cancer diagnosis

Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto outside. She has a henna tattoo on her head after losing her hair from chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.


Linda Deserto got through breast cancer with humor, introspection and taking one day at a time. She also had tremendous support from family and friends as well as unexpected places.


“It was hard. Probably the hardest thing I have ever done,” Linda Deserto said.


Linda Deserto, 60, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2022. She expected hair loss and fatigue. She did not expect the emotional toll of being the patient this time. A nurse for 40 years, mom of four children and Nana of five grandchildren, she is a caregiver through and through.


Breast cancer diagnosis


Linda went for what she thought would be a usual screening mammogram. She also had an ultrasound because she has dense breasts.



But when the radiologist came to speak with her, she thought something might be wrong.


Linda had a breast biopsy that confirmed she had breast cancer.


Someone close to her had breast cancer and did not tell anyone until it had spread. She passed away soon after telling her family. Linda could not understand why at the time. 


After Linda found out she had cancer, she said, “My first reaction was not to tell anyone — that shocked me. I had to mentally work through that.”


As a registered nurse, Linda has worked in maternity and oncology. Most recently, she has focused on men’s health in the prison system.


“Roseanne is my confidant for women’s health questions,” Linda said about her longtime friend Roseanne Baker, who also happens to be the program coordinator for breast surgery at Nuvance Health.


At first, Linda only told Roseanne about her diagnosis. Roseanne went with her to all her initial appointments.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto with her friend Roseanne Baker.


Linda was able to see Dr. Susan K. Boolbol, a fellowship-trained, board-certified breast surgeon the same day she had the biopsy.


“Dr. Boolbol was very direct, which was comforting. Even though it was scary, I knew what was coming,” Linda said. “I trusted her right away, and everyone in the breast surgery office was really wonderful.”


Breast cancer treatment


Medical oncology for breast cancer


Linda had six months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors in her right breast under the care of Dr. Stephen Malamud, the regional director of medical oncology at Nuvance Health in New York. He is a fellowship-trained, board-certified hematologist/oncologist.


“The first three months of chemo were manageable, except for the fatigue, which was the hardest thing,” Linda said.


“I am very stubborn and try to bully through things, but I couldn’t bully through the fatigue. I learned to listen to my body,” Linda said.


“The second three months of chemo were much harder,” Linda said.


She had a lot of discomfort from heartburn and could not tolerate much food, which was a side effect of the chemotherapy. She also lost her hair. 


“I lived on a lot of plain Greek yogurt and mashed potatoes,” Linda said.


“My grandchildren were very worried when I lost my hair. But I said it meant the medication was working and that I was going to be fine,” Linda said. “They rubbed my head for luck.”


Linda loves being a mom and Nana. She also loves gardening and has a large vegetable garden and flowers surrounding her home in Mount Hope, New York.


She enjoys having her grandchildren sleep over and harvest vegetables in the garden. She even has science classes where they nurture caterpillars into butterflies and release thousands of ladybugs and praying mantises into the garden.


“My kids and grandkids are my life,” Linda said. “We have a good time.”


Linda was immunocompromised from the chemotherapy, which made it more difficult to fight infections. She had to limit in-person visits with her kids and grandkids.


“It was very isolating; it was like COVID-19 all over again,” Linda said. “But my kids were wonderful and would FaceTime with my grandkids.


“It was a long winter. But once spring came, I could be more active and outside,” Linda said.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto holding two of her young grandkids.

Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto with her young granddaughter.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto with three of her young grandkids.


Surgery for breast cancer


Just in time for spring, Linda finished chemotherapy and had surgery to remove the cancer.


Dr. Boolbol performed a partial mastectomy, also called a lumpectomy.


Dr. Boolbol is the system chief of breast surgical oncology and the breast program at Nuvance Health. She performs oncoplastic breast surgery to remove cancer and also achieve the best possible cosmetic outcomes.


Linda was able to go home the same day as the surgery. She received good news that the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes.


“I was a little sore after surgery, but did not have to take any pain medication and just applied ice,” Linda said. 



Radiation therapy for breast cancer


Linda then had radiation therapy to reduce the risk of cancer returning to the breast.


“The actual treatments were quick. I spent more time signing in than getting radiation for the most part,” Linda said. 


Linda diligently used a recommended cream to prevent skin reactions from the radiation. She also wore sun-blocking and moisture-wicking clothes because she had treatments during the summer.


“I had fatigue again, but this time it was more manageable,” Linda said.


Linda finished radiation treatments in July 2023.


“I played hooky with my grandkids all summer. We went swimming and to the park and zoo. My dining room table was covered with crafts,” Linda said.


Linda had physical therapy to help manage lymphedema, a side effect from breast surgery that can cause swelling in the arm.


Linda wears a compression sleeve and applies massage techniques to manage the lymphedema. 



Regarding her care team, “Everyone along the way was very clear with their recommendations and why they were making them,” Linda said. “Everyone greeted me with a smile. They listened and took time to discuss every detail. Without them, I would not be here.”


At Nuvance Health, breast cancer care teams include many subspecialists who collaborate closely. The team includes surgical oncology, medical oncology, radiation oncology, pathology, radiology, nurse navigators, genetic counselors, nutritionists, social workers, therapists and more.



Overcoming challenges of breast cancer


In addition to the physical toll of breast cancer, Linda found the emotional and mental aspects of cancer surprisingly difficult.


“I have been a nurse for so long and am more comfortable being a caretaker than having others take care of me,” Linda said.


Linda got through cancer by finding humor, being introspective and focusing on one thing at a time.


“Losing my hair was hard because I did not want people to look at me and see a sick person,” Linda said. “I discovered the benefits of hair loss — no shampoo, conditioner, haircuts, dye or any fuss. Plus, my mom always said I had a perfectly bald head, and she was right,” she laughed.


Linda even got a henna tattoo on her head.


“My niece called me a badass; no one has ever called me that before,” Linda said.


 Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto has a henna tattoo on her head after losing her hair from chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.


“I learned a lot about myself from cancer. I have always been determined and felt invincible. But I saw myself as someone different when I was going through treatments; someone who was vulnerable and full of self-doubt,” Linda said. “My family and friends reminded me that I was capable and strong. They reminded me who I was in my core, and I wanted to live up to that.”


“I said a daily mantra to remind myself that I was strong, deserved to be healthy and have an attitude of gratitude,” Linda said.


Focusing on one thing at a time also helped Linda get through breast cancer treatments.


“I learned not to look at everything in its entirety but in little pieces,” Linda said. “I celebrated after I finished each chemo treatment, and every day I felt normal. Days turned into weeks and then longer.”


Support during breast cancer


Linda is grateful for her family and said cancer actually “brought us even closer together.”


Linda said her husband was “amazing.” 


“He did so much for me, including all the cooking and running around with my grandkids when I couldn’t,” Linda said. “He also drove me to my chemo appointments.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto with her husband. Linda is ringing a bell after completing treatments.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto with her husband.


“My kids took turns staying with me and made delicious comfort foods. My daughter made soft pretzels and Italian wedding soup, and my son also made soup.”


The support she and her family received from her friends overwhelmed her with gratitude.


“So many other women from my past came out of the woodwork and offered to be there for me if I needed to talk, and they brought us food,” Linda said. “Two friends came over at 6 a.m. to get my grandson who lives with me on the school bus.”


Linda reconnected with old acquaintances after seeing them at The Dyson Center for Cancer Care also getting chemotherapy.


“We formed a support group. We shared what we were going through and how we were feeling and dealing with it all.”


Living past breast cancer


Today, Linda said, “I feel better and more like myself every day.”


So many people helped her, and now she helps others. She loves crafts, quilting and sewing. She brought her creations to a Cancer Survivors Day event at Vassar Brothers Medical Center to help others.


“I am paying it forward for everything everyone did to help me,” Linda said.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center breast cancer patient Linda Deserto standing next to a table of quilts she made at a Cancer Survivors Day event.


Disclaimer: Outcomes from cancer vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.