Hi! I’m Catherine, a dietitian and a postdoctoral cancer researcher in the department of Animal Sciences at Illinois. Last year, I was diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, I shared some of my experiences with the Cancer Center at Illinois.

Here are the stories I shared as a guest blogger, including a bonus post about medical insurance.



I’ve learned a lot about myself and other people throughout this experience. Sometimes, people are just frustrating. I had two packages clearly containing cancer-related gifts stolen from my doorstep — maybe someone needed a port-accessible sweater? Once, there was a woman who, wearing her COVID-shielding mask around her chin, vented to me that ‘immunocompromised people should just stay at home, so she didn’t have to wear a mask in public.’

But mostly, I’ve learned how truly amazing people are. I’ve been high-fived in the grocery store, had old friends reach out to wish me well, and have been the recipient of so much love, kindness, and generosity. Those heart-warming interactions make it much easier to shrug off the bad experiences and remember all the good that is out there.


I’ve never particularly cared about my hair, but I didn’t want to go through what I imagined would be the traumatic experience of having long strands of my hair fall out. So, my salon closed their doors to the public, and my friends and I had a head shaving party. Everyone got a chance to make a cut, and it was full of too much laughter for me to feel sad. I’m glad I shaved it, because it eventually came out in uneven chunks before I was fully bald.

The wildest part was coming home after my 5th round of chemo. I rubbed at my face, and both of my eyebrows just came away. After losing all my hair during the winter months, I realized just how much I’ve taken my eyelashes, eyebrows, and even nose hair for granted. But hey, it all grows back!

Image of Catherine Applegate


Some days are harder than others when it comes to self-care, especially during the COVID-19 isolation. As a dietitian and cancer researcher, my rational brain knows that proper diet and general self-care are essential for managing life through treatment.

Unfortunately, my chemo brain — and taste buds, digestive tract, tired muscles, mood, etc. — don’t always agree. So I compromise: when I’m not feeling well, I consume the healthiest things that are most acceptable to me while simultaneously not aggravating my symptoms. I might also perform some light yoga through a Zoom class. Or, I throw all my logic out the window and eat a box of crackers for dinner and lay on the couch. But most importantly, I remind myself: however the day goes, it’s okay, because I’m trying my best.

Catherine Applegate holding flowers


Before scheduling my mastectomy with reconstruction, I was told by my doctor’s office that they rarely experienced coverage issues and that my insurance would pre-authorize the surgeries. But, a few months after my surgery, I received a huge bill from the hospital.

Everyone I spoke to simply told me, “reconstruction was considered cosmetic and wasn’t covered.” After some panic on my part and some research done by my much-more-clear-minded brother, we discovered that the 1998 Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act mandated that if insurance companies covered the mastectomy procedure, they also had to pay for reconstruction. Knowing my rights helped me to get full coverage!

Author: Catherine Applegate

Thank you for reading my stories this Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a Cancer Center at Illinois Ambassador and a cancer researcher myself, I was happy to share my experience as a cancer survivor with the community.

If you are interested in helping Illinois researchers improve the lives of cancer patients like me, please reach out to Amber Lannert, Senior Director of Advancement at the Cancer Center at Illinois.