Survivor Series – Meet Christeen Gilman

“Survival is a continual thing …breast cancer doesn’t end when you recover.”


For 47-year-old Christeen Gilman, what was most worrying and agonizing during her breast cancer battle was not how she suffered, and endured, but how it impacted her children.

“The hardest part of this cancer journey was by far how it affected my children,” Christeen revealed. She and her husband Alan have two sons, Leo, 17, and Eli, 13. “As a mom you are supposed to be there for them always, and during that time I just couldn’t do for them as I normally did.”

April, 2024: The Gilman family vacation to Italy. Pictured left is Christeen Gilman in Venice and pictured right is Christeen, Eli, Alan and Leo in in Rome.

A Library/Media Specialist and Assistant Dean of Studies at The Oxford Academy in Westbrook, before her diagnosis, Christeen, who was a ballerina from her youth into young adulthood, loved working out. An avid reader, she loved curling up with a good book, her cat in her lap, and a cup of coffee to sip on. She was content in her life; however, in June 2022, her world was turned upside down.

“Breast cancer has been something in my life since I was young when my mother’s best friend was diagnosed with it,” Christeen shared. “Sadly, she did pass away 10 years after her diagnosis from metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her bones. But my mom played a pivotal role in getting her friend the treatment she needed.”

Then, in 2008, she was witness to her mother-in-law’s breast cancer journey and then, in 2016, was there when her good friend and fellow TBBCF walker Amy Blewitt was diagnosed.

Read Amy’s Survivor story here. 

“I have virtually no history of breast cancer in my family,” Christeen noted. But, in 2020 her aunt died from appendix cancer, so she opted to do genetic testing shortly after and that revealed she had a “mutation in my PALB-2 gene of unknown significance.”

“My doctors have told me that it’s not what caused my cancer, but my aunt and grandfather both had this mutation and both passed away from cancer,” she said.

She also had a history of breast cysts so beginning in her teens she had her first ultrasound: “In my later 30s, those cysts became worse, and I started getting monitored every six months with a mammogram and ultrasound.”

At age 45, in June 2022, the cancer, Stage 1, Grade 1, ER & PR positive, Her2 negative, was discovered at one of those appointments.

“The radiologist said it was cancer even before the biopsy, but I still held out hope that it wasn’t.”

On June 28, it was a MyChart email that delivered the news: breast cancer.

“I was at work and totally melted down and went home immediately,” Christeen remembered. “My husband quickly left work to meet me at home.”

She explained that initially, it was thought there was only one tumor, and it was originally diagnosed as Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Later imaging and more biopsies showed there were two tumors of two different subtypes: Invasive Tubular Cancer and Invasive Lobular Cancer, all in the right breast.

“At this point, I opted for a double mastectomy. I was originally under the care of Middlesex Hospital, but they couldn’t get me into surgery until September. Every day waiting around knowing cancer was growing inside of me was very anxiety-inducing,” Christeen confided. “Because I had extra time, I decided to get a second opinion at Yale. They could get me into surgery in a week.”

She praised her breast surgeon and plastic surgeon. “They were incredibly supportive and knowledgeable throughout my surgeries.”

Christeen was no stranger to surgery, but her recovery from the double mastectomy was “incredibly hard and painful, much more than I had anticipated.”

“I had two surgeries before this, so I thought I knew what I was in for, but nothing compared to the recovery from this surgery,” she said. “I went from a very active mom of two boys who worked out regularly to being laid up for a good eight weeks.”

No pain was greater than watching how breast cancer affected her boys.

“My husband, Alan, was my rock during this time. He did so much during my recovery and offered me support. I could not have done it without him. He, my mom, my mother-in-law and a great group of friends helped me through those weeks,” she recalled. “Friends set up a meal train to give my husband a break from cooking. My mom would come over and do my hair. My mother-in-law would come over and keep me company. I had very little energy and found myself down for the day by 4 p.m.”

Her Oncotype score revealed she did not need chemo or radiation. But during those eight weeks of recovery, she had issues with tissue expanders: “This added to the painful part of the recovery and I got sick after having them filled due to the pain.”

Two months after her double mastectomy, she had reconstructive surgery. And that recovery was much easier, Christeen said.

But during this months-long process, there was no pain greater than watching how breast cancer affected her boys.

“My older son, Leo, was a junior in high school and facing a very tough year academically. He was also, learning how to drive, and was the lead in the school play. Having to deal with his mom also having cancer was very difficult for him.”

“Our younger son, Eli, was 10 at the time and didn’t fully understand what was going on. The hardest part of this cancer journey was by far how it impacted my children. As a mom, you are supposed to be there for them always, and during that time I just couldn’t do the things for them that I normally did.”

Later, even though it was “incredibly hard for my older son to deal with my diagnosis, he has turned this situation into something positive.”

Leo spent the past year organizing a cancer walk at Old Saybrook High School. Held earlier this month, it raised over $10,000 for TBBCF and the CT Cancer Foundation.

OSHS Cancer Walk on May 3rd that was put together by my son and fellow classmates. From left to right. Alan Gilman, Eli Gilman, myself and Leo Gilman
OSHS Cancer Walk on May 3rd that was put together by my son and fellow classmates. From left to right. Alan Gilman, Eli Gilman, myself and Leo Gilman.

Breast cancer’s a wake-up call: take nothing for granted, don’t wait to do what you love.

“I don’t think people realize that being a breast cancer survivor is a continual thing,” Christeen shared. “Breast cancer doesn’t end when you recover.”

She pointed to medication side effects, for example: “Tamoxifen makes me tired and there are many nights I’m asleep by 8:30!”

“There’s also this constant fear and anxiety of cancer coming back. That is something I really struggle with on a daily basis,” she confided. “I also struggle with why I even got cancer in the first place. I’m a healthy person with virtually no family history of breast cancer. I thought I was doing everything right, eating well and working out. But I have to remember the message of one of my favorite books, The Midnight Library, which is that life is about embracing the present moment and we need to live with love and kindness for others and oneself.”

Christeen has sound advice about waking up grateful and living life.

“Breast cancer is a wake-up call to not take anything for granted and to not wait to do the things you love. That’s why I returned to ballet after a nearly 20-year hiatus, and it has brought me great joy. We’ve also traveled more as a family since my recovery and recently took a week-long trip to Italy. By far, my favorite thing is spending time with my family.

Walking the TBBCF Walk, before and after her diagnosis

TBBCF Walk from left to right: Matt Carroll, Alicia Carroll, Alan Gilman, Amy Blewitt, myself, Rob Blewitt

In 2017, in support of her good friend, Amy Blewitt, who had gone through her own breast cancer diagnosis, Christeen walked the half-marathon and Amy walked the full marathon.

“After my diagnosis, she encouraged me to walk again, but this time, challenging myself to do the full marathon. I’m so glad that she did. It was so therapeutic to do the walk and spend it with so many wonderful people. Amy’s husband, Rob, my husband, Alan, and our good friends Alicia and Matt Carrol also did the walk as Team Puma. It was crazy to think the year before I was laid up in my reclining chair unable to do much of anything.”

I didn't have any photos of me during treatment other than many pictures of my cat Oreo who faithfully laid with me every day of my recovery so I included this one!! ~Christeen Gilman

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