VeraAnn Bilardi

Monte and I have been together for about 12 years—three years of this was a long distance relationship. He was living in Florida and I in New York. We traveled back and forth to see each other as people kept whispering, "it will never work, distance never does." Monte was working for Harley Davidson at the time and was their top salesman. I was working for one of the top I.T. employment agencies in New York for 23 years as a Manager and Sr. Technical Recruiter for the finance industry. I was earning a very good living and had finally met the man that I could see spending the rest of my life with. I’d never met anyone like him and never had the same feeling for anyone else like I had for him. 
 
As much as I wanted children—I knew I was missing this window—I did enjoy being around Monte's kids. It all just felt right. New Year’s Eve of 2005, Monte proposed to me. We planned a beautiful engagement party. Monte was still in Florida, but being the gentleman that he is and not wanting to take me away from my family, he moved to New York in 2006—a true sacrifice as he hates the cold weather and loves Florida. 
 
Our engagement party was June of 2006. We figured we would take some time and save some money before we booked a wedding. While everyone kept asking us, "when is the date," one of my worst nightmares was about to come true; my very healthy boss, out of nowhere, got diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and closed the doors of our company in 2008 and passed away a few months later. This was all very traumatic for me. So, there I was without a job for the first time in my life after being with the same firm for 23 years. The job market at the time was very hard. Since I could do my business from home, I formed my own corporation and decided to try it to work for myself. Knowing that most agencies were not giving benefits due to the economy, I had to start paying for my own benefits. Needless to say, this depleted the money I had saved for years, and it just got worse and worse. I tried to hook up with as many agencies as I could for work but still there was not a lot of job opportunities. 
 
In the meantime, Monte's business was also down so we continued to struggle and struggle. He also had two hospital stays, one in 2011 and one in 2013. I went through my retirement savings and had to take a penalty for that as well. Also, I went through my refinance savings. Everything was gone. Every day I would just pray for a placement in order to pay my bills. So, as everyone continued to ask for a wedding date, I would just smile and say, "we haven't gotten to it yet!" I would always repeat, though, that "nothing is that bad, as long as you have your health."  I was very healthy, ate well, was very active, and had loads of energy. But I had a lot of stress. I come from very good genes from both my mother and father—no diseases.
 
I started my mammograms at the appropriate age at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York and never missed one year. One night in February of 2014 I went to sleep like usual with no issues, but woke up with a golf ball-sized growth sticking out of my left breast. At first I thought, "this is nothing, it was always here."  But I knew it really was not. I just thought it was hormonal and let it go for two months thinking it would go down with each menstrual period, but it did not. In April, I went back to the doctor who just did a breast exam on me and he was shocked to see this. He told me it was probably a cyst and that I would need to have it aspirated. I went for the ultrasound and could tell by just reading the doctor's face that it was not a cyst. She told me there was a problem and told me I also had an enlarged lymph node. I knew nothing about this so I immediately started to Google my symptoms and drove myself crazy.
 
A few days later as my Mom sat in the waiting room, I went for the biopsy and heard the words "You have ‘it’ and it's also in a node." I didn't cry; I remained strong because I had to go out and tell my Mom who was sitting in the waiting room with her rosary beads. Monte went to tell my Dad because he knew something was wrong when I wasn't answering my phone. He cried like a baby for hours. My only thought was, "what did I do wrong?" My diet consisted of salmon and vegetables, fruit, no red meat and chicken caesar salads. I blamed it on my love for pizza and a glass of wine that I would have at night to calm me from all the stress that I was dealing with. Breast cancer was not in my family so why is this all happening to me? What about my job? I can't move on with my fiancee now that I am sick.  How would I ever get through any of this? I’ve just heard about cancer but never thought it could happen to me. Why didn't NYU take sonograms (they do now) knowing I had very dense breasts and why, when they saw calcifications in my left breast, did they not look in to it? These were the thoughts racing in my mind, but I knew there was no answer that was going to change what I was about to face.
 
I did my research; I found a top notch surgeon, oncologist and plastic surgeon. After meeting with the surgeon I knew he was the only one that I wanted to operate on me. He was everything everyone said about him. When he told me I had invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), that only 10 to 15% of women have this type of cancer, and that my tumor was 6 cms, I became numb. When he told me I would need chemotherapy first, my heart sank. I was known to be the "girl with the hair," long blonde streaks down to my waist and now I knew what was coming. How could I deal with this? My hair was so special to me, but like my job and my boss, it was all being taken away from me. 
 
When you don't have a choice in your life, you do what you need to do. There I was in the chair with my very long hair in pony tails, each one getting snipped off and all of a sudden I looked like a boy. This is when I cried; it all surfaced. My sister-in-law and cousin then took me to get a wig, a wig that the insurance company told me they would pay for. It took eight months for my insurance company to pay me for the wig while I had to make endless phone calls and write numerous letters. 
 
Monte was with me through every chemo treatment. The first day I just cried going in that room, I was so scared. I do feel very blessed that I did sail through the chemo very well and never got sick. Maybe it’s because I did lead such a healthy life; who knows? I finished the chemo in November 2014 but had to wait until January to have surgery due to having to change my insurance in order to get my surgeon, which of course cost more money, but once again, I felt I had no choice. My surgery went very well. The M.R.I. pryor showed no sign of cancer and that the chemo wiped it all away. But the pathology report showed a 3 cm tumor and three positive nodes, although very little cancer was in the nodes. I did have clean margins.  
 
My family has been right by my side the entire time. My mom never left the hospital for four days when I got sick from the pain medicine and had to stay in the hospital. Monte has been my Rock; he’s been with me to every doctor's appointment, everything. 
 
I have also had radiation and I have been on Tamoxifen for two years now. I feel like it never ends, but, yet I am grateful because it could be so much worse. I was getting hit with co-pays all over the place and just continued to struggle financially. I wonder why Monte and I can't get a break. I just tell myself I’ve had some pretty bad luck but there is something waiting for me after all of this. I truly believe in Hope and never give up on anything. Like all of us, I get my days of flashbacks and feeling scared of every ache and pain but I try to turn every negative in to a positive!

Ruth Ebenstein

I never imagined something wonderful could come out of something bad.

“That lump is cancer. If the pathology report comes back negative, I’m going to think it’s a mistake.”

When Dr. Fisher dropped that bomb on me while I was nursing my baby (on the cancerous side!), I thought, I'm going to die. I had lost two friends to the disease. Both were around my age. Was there any other trajectory?

The pathology report on the lymph nodes scooped out of my left armpit confirmed that the cancer had NOT spread. Though blessed, I lumbered around my apartment in Jerusalem, despairing. I had two other sons under five in addition to my baby. Would I get to see them grow up? Gone was my dream of another child. My doctorate in Holocaust history had lost its allure. While my lumpectomy scars were still healing, I gritted my teeth and walked my fingers up the wall, stretching the scar tissue under my armpit.

I was a changed person. But who was this new me?

Then, on a rainy Wednesday in January five years ago, I took a break from my exercises to check my email. There, I found a query that glittered with some promise.

"Do you want to join an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group?"

I had attended Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups before and met Palestinian men. But the friendships I sought with women were hard to attain. A shared history of illness could provide a real connection. Could something good come out of cancer?

Walking into the first meeting, I found more than good. I found incredible! I met Ibtisam Erekat, a bold, captivating Muslim Palestinian woman from Abu Dis. And I discovered that we had very similar life narratives, despite the fact that I was an American-Israeli Orthodox Jew. We were both religiously observant and we had both married in our thirties, late in our respective traditional communities. Each of our husbands was a divorcé who was several years our senior and had brought children into the marriage. We both had birthed three children in three years. And we were both diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing our babies, which was rather uncommon.  I had never met anyone who shared so many critical elements of my life story. "Same here," said Ibtisam at our first meeting, in impressive English she had gleaned off the television. I soon discovered that we were both fearless, outgoing, daring. The conversation flowed and we cracked each other up.

In 2012, we traveled together to Bosnia as part of an Israeli-Palestinian delegation of breast cancer survivors, sponsored by Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and hosted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The mission: to meet and learn from other breast cancer

Monica Morris

It's December 2012 and I'm getting ready to go have dinner with friends. While in the shower, I usually do my breast self-examination. I felt a lump in my left breast, hard without pain or rash. My thoughts were: just wait and it will disappear. After one week passed, it is still there—hard as a rock.
 
I tell my husband what’s happening and that I need a mammogram. And yes, I'm a little worried. I'm 47 years old (at the time) with no history of breast cancer in my family. Chances are it’s nothing.
 
On March 23, 2013, I go in for my mammogram. The technicians see something on the screen. A biopsy is the next step.
 
Then in the waiting room, out of nowhere, I see my husband. Our doctor, a good friend, had asked him to be there. I thought it was kind of strange, but my husband told me that Dr. Cannon had asked him to meet me there. I said, “I'm fine.”
 
We were called in to talk to the doctor, an oncologist from Southampton Hospital. All she said was, “You have breast cancer.” Whatever else she said sounded like, “Blah, blah, blah.” I cried. I guess the word cancer is more scary, when it’s you being diagnosed with the disease.
 
My thoughts were all over the place. What am I going to do? I have to tell my family, my friends. What’s the next step? I'm a calm person—but not that day or the following days.
 
The oncologist requested an MRI to get a better picture of my chest area. The test reveals another lump in my right breast. The next biopsy is better news. The lump is not positive for cancer, but they want to keep an eye on me, testing me every three months.
 
We went looking for help and answers, second opinions and doctor’s interviews. 

We didn’t have much communication from the doctor at Southampton Hospital, so I decided to get an appointment with Patricia Farrelly, M.D., of Stony Brook Hospital. I learned later on, that the right doctors are the ones you are really comfortable with, who answer your questions without doubt. My husband, my biggest supporter, was with me during all appointments and procedures. The love from your best friend is crucial along your road to survival.
 
After all my exams, tests and interviews, I decided to do a double mastectomy with Dr. Farrelly as my surgeon. I had one lump in my right breast that the doctors would monitor every three months. I decided I didn't want to wait to see it turning into a cancer.
 
My doctor and the team I chose explained everything in detail and made me very comfortable with my decision.
 
My first surgery was March 4, 2013 and it would he longest. The first four hours were assigned to the breast surgeon, Dr. Farrelly and the oncologist, Andrzej Kudelka, M.D., of Stony Brook University Medical Center. The last four hours would be devoted to the plastic surgeon, Sami U. Khan, M.D., also of Stony Brook.
 
When I woke up, I felt a numbness and a sense of missing part of my body—I did feel I lost something.
 
My surgeon installed an expander, a balloon that slowly inflates under your breast until you are happy with the size of your breast.
 
After two days in the hospital, I was discharged. In a week I received the results of lymph nodes biopsy and it was negative for cancer—great news.
 
Because I decided on doing the double mastectomy, I didn't need any radiation or chemotherapy. My treatment is five to ten years of Tamoxifen.
 
About six month after the mastectomy, I had a second surgery to insert the implants. Unfortunately, because one implant moved, I had a third surgery to fix the implant.
 
The Tamoxifen treatment started a year after my first surgery.  If I had done just the lumpectomy, I would need radiation. I'm happy with my choice.
 
Today I'm cancer free and happy to be here and be able to see my son, my step kids and my husband.  I'm able to breath, walk my dog, see friends, go clamming and swim. Many of my friends in this lifetime have been taken by this disease. The cure will be here and hopefully soon.

Rodica Gonzalez

A brilliantly talented violinist, Rodica Gonzalez has not only been treated for breast cancer, but also several other cancers. Her story is not only amazing, but exceptionally inspiring.

Rodica Gonzalez, a violinist who joined the Houston Symphony in 1990, came to the US from Romania in July 1987 to study violin performance at Rice University. Rodica’s story is one of triumphs and struggles all at the same time.

In 2003, after noticing some oddly shaped bumps on her leg, a biopsy revealed melanoma. She continued to monitor her skin, and in April 2005, she found a nodule on her left breast. Rodica immediately called her physician who told her to come in right away. Little did she know she would spend her husband, Robert’s, 40th birthday undergoing a lumpectomy, which would reveal stage 2 carcinoma.

At the same time, April 2005, the Fidelis Quartet in which Rodica played was invited to make their debut at Carnegie Hall in June 2005. This opportunity of a lifetime was especially unique because Rodica’s sister, Mihaela, was also a member of this Houston Symphony quartet. When Rodica received word that it would be imperative for her to undergo chemotherapy for the next six months and radiation for the next six weeks, she was determined not to let this hurdle stand in the way of playing at Carnegie Hall that June. What most people do not realize is that in undergoing treatment, essentially her arm was frozen, making it a little difficult to practice the violin. So, in addition to her treatment, which included chemotherapy once a week, she was undergoing intense physical therapy to be prepared for the performance.

And so it was in June 2005, Rodica went for chemo on Monday, headed to New York on Tuesday, rehearsed with her quartet throughout the week, played at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, and went straight back to MD Anderson for chemo the following Monday. In December 2005, she completed her six month round of chemotherapy. Over the next year and half, doctors continued to monitor her levels with constant blood tests, and Rodica appeared to be on the road to health and wellness.

Soon after the arrival of her son, Matthew, Rodica was experiencing uncomfortable pain in her abdomen. In 2007, she was diagnosed with endometrial sarcoma. Her surgeon removed a polyp, which was barely attached to the uterus. He explained that she was very lucky because it had not spread to any of her other organs.

Back in full recovery mode once again, and enjoying every moment watching her son grow up, a cough sent her back to the doctor. Originally diagnosed with pneumonia, doctors ordered routine CT scans for few years as they noticed shadows on her lungs. After a routine check up in 2014, a lung biopsy revealed neuroendocrine carcinoid on her left lung. Laproscopic surgery was ordered, and it was removed right away.

Although Rodica had been tested for the BRCA gene early on, in 2014, her doctors ordered tests for 18 other genes since it was not normal to have been diagnosed with so many other cancers. It was determined that she has Li  Fraumeni Syndrome. The mutation can trigger other cancers, especially brain and pancreatic.

Rodica continues to play full time in the Houston Symphony. She gets skin check-ups every four months. She had had four biopsies the day before we spoke. Her doctors order her to have a full body MRI at least one time a year. In 2015, she had 11 MRIs. However, despite these challenges, Rodica goes about her day as a loving mother, devoted wife, and brilliantly talented violinist. Truly inspired by her story, the Emma Jacob’s Breast Cancer Foundation cannot thank her enough for taking the time to share her life with us.

Written by Kelly Kronfeld

Terry Arnold

Cancer and the Glass Ceiling
 A Survivor Story by
Terry Arnold, Founder of the IBC Network Foundation


Fellow advocate,Terry Arnold was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2007. Even today, IBC is poorly understood and often misdiagnosed. If you are not familiar with IBC, you are not alone. In her post Terry shares some of her own personal story as well as what motivates her to push forward in her efforts to increase awareness and research efforts for IBC. 

Cancer and the Glass Ceiling
by Terry Lynn Arnold

When I was first handed my cancer diagnosis, I went through a range of emotions, reactions and coping skills.

Flashing back to the late 1970’s when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer, I remembered my family whispering the “C” word. We were afraid if the word cancer came out of our mouths, it would somehow boomerang back and get us all. Knowing how barbaric cancer staging was at that time, I can understand the fear. The thought of undergoing exploratory surgery just to know how advanced your disease was makes me shudder.

The flip side of not being afraid is showing (or trying to show) our brave side, so we celebrate with pre-victory parties. I did. I didn’t know what else to do. We call in all our girlfriends and put on brave faces vowing to “beat it” and not look back at what was just a bump in the road.

Some of this might be due to some unacknowledged pressure from the “fight like a girl” banter that we are inundated with or some leftover poorly applied post-feminist fallout that our breasts don’t define us.

I realize, of course, that we are more than our breasts…but if someone loses their hand to a disease or accident, he/she is not told, “Well that hand does not define you”, so why are we guilted out by mourning the loss of a part of our body?

In my cancer treatment experience, I was cheered on, told to be powerful, be my own best advocate and be in charge of my journey. Always one to go my own way regardless of what others thought, I was comfortable with that. Being in charge was a little harder than I expected. I was ill, green and hurting, but eventually my treatment was completed and cancer was not in control of my body anymore.

Eight years later, I am happy to report that I gratefully wear the label of NED, No Evidence of Disease, post my diagnosis with Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer, TN IBC. (and no, that is not a “good” cancer, in case you did not know)

Now this is where I get to the glass ceiling – living post cancer, which sometime feels more like a glass box. The view is good, but I have limits on how far I can go.

When I was diagnosed with this rare disease, I was shocked. How could I have not heard about this lump-less form of breast cancer which does not show up on a mammogram?

I considered myself to be a well-educated woman, so I chalked up my lack of knowledge as being due to the rareness of IBC. I didn’t have much time to think about it then, due to the battle in front of me. I also soon realized that being triple negative was not a good thing either. I thought it meant I passed something. With cancer, to be negative is good right? Wrong…

When my treatment was done and I wanted to apply my hard-earned knowledge to help other women with the same diagnoses, that’s when I hit that glass ceiling.

It seemed my superpowers were only expected to go so far. Told to not let my cancer be more than a speed bump, suddenly there were limits. I was told to go back to my old life and enjoy each day to the fullest. But like being at a loud rock concert, where that white noise rings in your head all the next day, I couldn’t hear people well…and I couldn’t forget what I saw.

I saw very young women dying of something that no one was talking about.

IBC is an “orphaned” form of breast cancer first written about almost 200 years ago, but mentioned only in passing with little or no attention paid to it until recently. Discovering this was maddening to me, because IBC has the highest percentage of death of all known forms of breast cancer. To die from IBC is a hard death, a painful one, but to live after it is painful too because you would do anything you could to save someone else from that suffering.

I understood those who reminded me I was supposed to be grateful I was alive, get over it, get on with things and get reconstruction, as if my wholeness was waiting for me at the plastic surgeon’s office.

I was grateful, but I was also outraged.


Was this where my road was to end?

What was I to do for the betterment of the cause?

Every “pink” door I knocked on led to disappointment and more ringing in my head. The sound I heard was the voices of women, IBC patients and their families, many who became close friends of mine, pleading with me to tell someone, to do something about IBC.

It seems though, that I can only be an advocate up to a point that is not uncomfortable for others. It also seems that many people are convinced that we do not have to fear breast cancer anymore and certainly we are not supposed to die from it.

Today some people are cavalier and sometimes ask the newly diagnosed breast cancer patient, “Is this the good kind of cancer?”

I feel like the guardians of our cancer health and especially breast cancer health have let me down by not talking about IBC. 

Rare does not mean never and even if the knowledge we are given about this disease that typically does not show up on a mammogram, has no early detection, can’t be discovered earlier than a stage three and has a low survival rate is a frightening reality, it can’t be more frightening than being handed that diagnosis.

We need to talk about the “uncomfortable” forms of breast cancer, like Triple Negative and Inflammatory Breast Cancer.

The first step to a cure is discussion.  Discussion will lead to education, knowledge and research and in time, pray God, a cure.

Hope always,

Terry Arnold
founder, The IBC Network Foundation

Cindy Farmer

I never felt a lump, I was energetic--in fact, I'd never felt better in my life! I was about to hop on a plane to New York City for another few shows before the end of Fashion Week when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was September 11th of last year, 2014. 

A routine yearly mammogram the day before showed something wasn't right...tiny calcifications clustered in my right breast. My radiologist told me of the findings and said she was sending me to Methodist hospital to see a breast surgeon. Sure enough, within seconds of seeing my films Dr Sherry Lim said I had cancer. 

I immediately called a friend whose father and brother were both doctors at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. and I called Emma Jacobs. I was able to get in the following morning. After a 3-D mammogram and several biopsies later, (I had a total of six over the course of 2 weeks), doctors there concluded I had cancerous cells in both breasts and diagnosed me with DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ. 

Even though doctors were telling me the cancer was only stage 1, I was shocked by the findings.  I live a very healthy lifestyle, I eat well, mostly organic, and workout daily. I underwent genetic testing and BRCA screening, not only did I not carry the gene but this type of cancer does not run in my family. What tests did conclude was my cancer was 99% progesterone and estrogen receptor positive.  

I decided to undergo a single mastectomy in October at Methodist hospital. With Dr Lim as my surgeon, Dr Jenny Chang as my oncologist and Dr Jeffrey Friedman as my reconstructive surgeon, I knew I was in great hands. Almost two weeks after my surgery I found out the cancer had not spread and I did not need chemo or radiation. To say I was relieved is an understatement! I had already decided on which wigs to wear. 

I wore an expander in my right breast for three months before undergoing reconstructive surgery. 

I am happy to say I never missed a beat! I walked six miles every day one week after my surgery with draining tubes still in place.  Dr Friedman would not recommend this and is yelling at me as he's reading this! 

Today, I am on tamoxifen, a drug that blocks estrogen and progesterone in my body and lowers my chances of breast cancer recurrence. I still go in every six months for a mammogram in my left breast which makes me extremely nervous. But the good news is, I'm cancer free and I feel awesome! 

Thank you John Pappadopolous and Emma Jacobs for hooking me up with the great doctors at MD Anderson and Methodist hospitals. I appreciate the help of family and friends who were there to care for my two daughters, Alex and Kate, while I was in recovery. And to my girlfriends who went to the grocery store to shop, which I can not stand, and made drug store runs for my meds, I love every last one of you! 

Kesha Miller

Kesha Miller

How could anyone anticipate that at age 43, I, a newlywed, a far too-young grandmother, manager, and student—with one class remaining towards my Master’s degree—would experience life changing-events that would alter not only my lifestyle, but my entire outlook on life itself? For the past few years, I had followed all suggestions for routine screening for breast cancer. I had consistently scheduled routine exams around my birthday so that these oh so important appointments wouldn’t get lost in the busy shuffle of life. However, 2013 was much different. I scheduled my mammogram at the end of the year only to avoid insurance issues of possibly paying for multiple exams in one year. The exam itself revealed a small mass, but nothing too concerning.

My OB/GYN doctor, who told me that breast cancer is unpredictable, referred me to a general surgeon. He, instead, would bypass the biopsy process and take me directly to surgery to remove the mass. I had asked to postpone this minor surgery by several weeks; however, he convinced me that it wouldn’t be a wise idea. Within two weeks, I was scheduled for surgery, which resulted in the removal of two masses rather than one. One of the masses was definitely identified as cancerous. Because of the size of the tumors as well as the location, early detection worked in my favor and radiation was the recommended treatment program. After meeting with oncologist an several weeks later I was advised that the original treatment recommendation would not address my cancer.  I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which only responds to chemotherapy. I sought a second opinion at MD Anderson and met with Dr. Catherine Akay who focuses solely on breast cancer.  Additionally, she suggested that I undergo BRCA 1 & 2 testing because of the diagnosis, my age, and the fact that there was no family history of cancer. 

Throughout the initial process I received support from family, friends, and even my church members. I believed that my strong faith would help me through this ordeal and viewed my diagnosis, treatment, and altered lifestyle as life’s temporary detour. It was a true test of faith when the BRCA test returned positive results. I was now facing a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. After each diagnosis, I prepared myself, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually only to be taken down another path that was more frightening than the first. My life was an emotional whirlwind. But rather than staying in the negative, I took a proactive approach. I believed that God did not bring me through past ordeals—I had experienced the death of my husband, mother, and both maternal grandparents in a 15-month period—to allow cancer to take over. I was determined to view this as an awakening, my epiphany to start enjoying life to the fullest extent.  I realized that I had become so consumed with so many others, their problems, and situations, that I didn’t focus enough on me. Enduring treatment allowed me to contemplate so much and re-prioritize what’s important. 

Experiencing six months of chemotherapy under Dr. Sunil Patel, and a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery under Dr. Edward Chang in a ten-month period was a lot. It was definitely my trial of faith and endurance.  I was determined to finish what I started. I returned to Rice University, finished my Master’s degree, and I am now spending every moment focusing on the things that bring me joy.  I am still facing minor revision surgeries and a hysterectomy, but life is too complicated and too short to not appreciate every moment.  Each day is another blessing and an opportunity to live and to let someone know that despite individual circumstances, one can overcome obstacles, achieve wondrous things, and inspire others to keep moving forward.         

Michelle Homer

michelle homer

A year ago this month, I was coping with the effects of chemo and learning to rock wigs, fedoras and ballcaps.
My journey began with an annual mammogram in September of 2013. I get them every year because my mom is a breast cancer survivor. This one would be different.
After four months of mammograms, ultrasounds, a needle biopsy and surgical biopsy, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and ductal carcinoma in situ in January 2014.  My world stood still for a moment, but the diagnosis itself was easier than waiting for answers all those months. That was torture!
Emma Jacob was one of the first people I contacted. She was an angel and made sure I got in to see Dr. Anthony Lucci at MD Anderson Cancer Center. I knew I was in good hands the first time I met him.
The lumpectomy would turn up twin invasive tumors, but they were small and it looked like I would get by with radiation alone. That changed with an oncotype DX test that put my odds for metastatic recurrence higher than I was comfortable with. My oncologist recommended chemo and I reluctantly agreed.
I took time off from work during the first four months of weekly chemo treatments. I’m a TV news journalist with a stressful job and long hours are the norm. I decided to put my health first and focus on my recovery. I’m not sure how people manage to work while coping with the extreme fatigue and other symptoms caused by chemo!
I cried a little when the first clump of hair came out in the shower. My hair stylist is a friend who agreed to shave my head, which I highly recommend for anyone about to tackle chemo! We decided to make a party of it, complete with champagne and pink boas for everyone. There were no tears that day. We were all too busy laughing!
I had some tough days along the way, but the positives far outweighed the negatives. I shared my journey on Facebook and the support I received from family, friends -- even total strangers -- was amazing! I was so touched by all of the people who took time out from their busy lives to send me cards, gifts and uplifting messages along the way. I was reminded daily how blessed I am to have so many wonderful people in my life, including Emma.
It was impossible to feel sorry for myself during my weekly visits to M.D. Anderson, surrounded by so many people who were much sicker than I was. I met many fellow breast cancer warriors who had come to Houston from all over the country for treatment. These women had to put their lives on hold and leave their loved ones behind to fight their battle. It made me realize how lucky I am to live so close to one of the world’s best cancer centers.
Now my hair has grown back, my energy has returned and most of the symptoms from chemo and radiation are gone. For those just beginning their journey, you will likely be amazed to discover how strong you really are! Just take it one day at a time and let your family and friends help you along the way. You’re going to be just fine. 

Kathleen Cooney

I am a Virgo, a known hypochondriac. I was meticulous about doctor’s checkups. I got my baseline mammogram at age 35 and then yearly at 40. A year before I was diagnosed with what came to be Stage III breast cancer, one of my sister's was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I ran to my Ob-Gyn and took the BRCA test. The results came back negative. Now with a family history of ovarian cancer and because I had endometriosis, I started getting pelvic sonograms every six months, just to be safe.  

 A few months later, I noticed a crease on my breast during a summer vacation and made a “note to self” that when I got back to New York, I needed to get a mammogram—not that I thought I had breast cancer, but for vanity purposes as it was not very becoming on me. Had I not told the technician that I suspected something, it would not have found it because I have "dense" tissue. They immediately took a sonogram and biopsies on both sides. I left knowing that this wasn't going to be the last of my ordeal.

 Sure enough, I got the call at work two days later—the left side was cancer. I was in a glass conference room when I called them back and it wasn't pretty for those sitting on the trading floor, seeing someone do the ugly cry. One of my other sisters happened to be in New York having dinner with someone who is very well connected to Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital. By the time they finished dinner I had an appointment in two days with a top surgeon. From there it was a roller coaster. I now had a new list of doctors—surgeons, oncologist, radiologist, a therapist and most daunting, appointments at wig shops. I had adjunct chemotherapy first. My cocktail was ACT—Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol. I went home and didn't Google anything on breast cancer. EVERYONE'S cancer is different. People react in different ways. Mine was to leave it all up to the pros. I was going to go to work, act normal and pretend I wasn't sick until I got up from my desk every other Thursday and dropped off the wig at the hair dresser (I never spent so much money on my hair before) and then met my friends who would take me to chemo, then decide what we would order in for lunch, look up old boyfriends and watch daytime TV.  

 After chemo ended I was scheduled for a lumpectomy a month later. Unfortunately the margins did not come back clear and two weeks later I was in surgery for a double mastectomy. I remembered leaving work the day before the surgery so scared that I was going to be in so much pain. In reality I felt nothing, and two years later I still feel nothing because the entire area is still numb; my plastic surgeon said it would probably always be that way. One thing that really helped was physical therapy to get my range of motion back and helped with the effects of the expanders the surgeon implanted until I returned for the real thing—breast reconstruction!  After that surgery I waited a month and then started radiation every day for seven weeks. The burning was really uncomfortable but as all my doctor’s told me: I had no choice. Radiation was my insurance policy; I never wanted the cancer to return, then look back and wonder why I chose to stop treatment after surgery.

 One silver lining in the entire process was that I gave myself free reign to buy Hermes scarves, only wearing the dreaded wig to work!

  Kathleen Cooney    

 

Roxanna Sanchez

“It’s breast cancer.” Three words no one ever wants to hear. I was 37 years old when I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. It was two days after Christmas. I had my biopsy on Christmas Eve.  My exact diagnosis was DCIS or Ductal Carcinoma In situ and metastatic breast carcinoma in my axilla. I wasn’t completely shocked because I had felt the lump and saw the tumors on the mammogram and ultrasound. Still, the tears overcame me. 

As I tried to figure out what all was needed to be done by myself; I had to figure out who I needed to call and where I needed to go, I had a huge sense of peace take over me. I knew God was in control, plus, I lived in Houston, the best place for cancer care, and I had two young boys to live for. The weeks flew by even though many tests were run. Before I knew it I was starting my chemotherapy, but I was prepared. I knew I was going to lose my hair and it wasn’t a big deal. I knew I was going to feel sick but I knew there was medication to help me get through it. I knew I would eventually lose the breast, but it was just a breast. I knew I was going to make it. I knew it. I had no doubts, no worries, and no fear.  

I did everything I was told to do, went to every appointment I was scheduled for, took every pill I was asked to and enjoyed every moment I could because I knew this experience wasn’t just for nothing. I knew there had to be a purpose and I was ready to fulfill that purpose. About five or six weeks after starting chemo, I asked God to make this experience serve a purpose. I told Him, “I know I am going to survive but I want it to serve a purpose. I want to be a blessing to others and that my experience will help someone in their struggle with cancer.” 

I continued working full time, being a baseball mom (I never missed a game and only one practice), I continued going to church and getting outside as much as possible. I had so much to live for. I was given a second chance for a reason.
I finished my chemo, had my mastectomy, did six weeks of daily radiation and went through several surgeries in the following years. I am now a six-year survivor, enjoying my teenage sons, and thanking God for every encounter along the way. 

I am in college now, pursuing my degree in nursing, hoping to specialize in oncology. I meet people almost every day that have been personally touched by cancer. I get to share my story, encourage when I can, grieve with the families of those who do not make it and bring awareness about this disease as much as possible. I am open with cancer patients about what I have gone through and although I can’t give medical advice, I can encourage them and tell them my human experience.

I will keep the memories of loved ones and friends I have lost to this disease deep in my heart and pray that soon there will be a cure.    

Robin McCain

Robin McCain (right) with her friend, Karey Albaugh

Robin McCain (right) with her friend, Karey Albaugh

In November of 2013, an inner voice kept reminding me of how I needed to go get my mammogram—I thought I was just a few years behind. Busy with young children, time just flew by. When I finally did make my appointment a few months later, I found out I was six years past due. I was not too concerned because I have no history of breast cancer in my family. During the mammogram, the techs saw what they called “lines everywhere” and whisked me away to get an immediate ultrasound. During the ultrasound the radiologist came in and told me I have a malignancy, and I was astounded! I could not believe it! I was there, all alone and they are telling me that—instead of just informing my doctor and letting him tell me. They gave me the option of performing a biopsy right then and there, or have me leave and contact my doctor. In shock, I chose to contact my doctor. I went to the car and just cried and cried. It was the scariest time of my life to be told I have cancer! I have always worked out and taken very good care of myself and I was in disbelief. My doctor was also shocked at how the radiologist handled things and referred me to a doctor of his choosing.
 
I then went to this new doctor who had a very caring staff. They ran all kinds of tests. They said I had Stage I local breast cancer and I needed a lumpectomy. In the meantime, my husband, who works at the Liberty Group in Houston, reminded me of how his boss, Ken Bohan, was friends with Emma Jacobs, and how if I needed a second opinion she could get me in at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, right away. Once again, my inner voice was telling me to get a second opinion! Thank God for inner voices!! I told him I wanted a second opinion and Emma called me right away and got me in to see Dr. Anthony Lucci.
 
Dr. Lucci then told me that at MD Anderson, they would have to rerun all my tests because they find mistakes in past tests every week. After the testing, Dr. Lucci said that I didn't have Stage I, but at least Stage II breast cancer. But because of the size of the tumor, they were not expecting any cancer to be in my lymph nodes. However, one lymph node in the armpit of the cancer side was larger, so they performed a biopsy and it came back benign. They also found two other suspicious areas in the same breast, so they said I could do two more biopsies or have a mastectomy because if even one of those came back cancerous I would have to have a mastectomy anyway, so I chose the mastectomy.
 
During surgery, six of my axilla lymph nodes “lit up” when they ran the dye showing cancer and all of my lymph nodes had to be removed on the left side. I woke up in shock and disbelief when I was told that I had Stage III local advanced breast cancer. Even Dr. Lucci was shocked with the tumor size; they couldn't believe it was in my lymph nodes. I then was told I would need chemotherapy and radiation. 
 
My husband and I were not comfortable with the first doctor I saw in oncology. We could not seem to get answers; we felt as if she was very negative and we felt like we had to figure everything out ourselves from the paperwork that was handed to us.  Once again I contacted Emma and she got me right in the see Dr. Jenny Chang at Methodist Hospital in Houston. She and her staff were so wonderful to me!! They were very positive and told me the kind of cancer I had was what they have had the most success with, and she thought I would be cured. 
 
She also told me that if I wanted to, I could use “Cold Caps” and save my hair. This was so important to me because my hair is already baby fine and I was afraid I would be one of the 6% of cancer patients with permanent hair loss. A very good friend of mine, Karey Albaugh, came to chemo with me and changed out the Caps every 30 minutes. The temperature of the “Cold Caps” was -28° C, and so miserable! They had to be on my head for seven hours every day of chemo.  We even had to pull over on the on side of highway and change out these Caps when it was time. It was actually kind of hilarious! People who saw us were wondering what the heck we were doing. The Methodist Hospital staff was so amazing and kept me laughing all the way through treatment. I am so thankful for their caring staff and my friends and family who got me through my five months of chemo.
 
After chemo, I was told I would need radiation. I was against radiation because of all the future health risks. Jenny Chang referred me to a wonderful radiation oncologist at Methodist Hospital, Dr. Ben Teh. He explained to us that if I didn't complete the radiation, there could be a 40% chance of reoccurrence. With that being said, I endured six weeks of radiation and the Methodist staff and my family and friends got me through it. I then went through reconstruction surgery and am very happy with the results.
 
Today I am two years out and Cancer FREE! It feels so good to be here with my family and I thank God every day that I AM A SURVIVOR!!

Cristin Antun

Cristin's Power Team! (l to r): Kim Palumbo, Cristin Antun, Alyssa Manzo (Cristin's boyfriend’s 16-year-old daughter and her youngest supporter), Audrey Valley, Terry Webster, Karen Oliva, Erin Dewey and Blanca Mercado (kneeling)

I remember clearly the day in late November that my mother sat me and my sister down  to tell us she had chosen to radically remove both breasts and have reconstructive surgery after many bouts with both Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) in both breasts—a day I thought would live on in my mind as one of the worst in my life. That is, until I had to call my mom and tell her they had found something on my very first mammogram. And worse yet, that I had cancer.

I am the poster child for early detection, based on the history of cancers in my immediate family. My Ob/Gyn wrote me a prescription for a mammogram and said, " Just get it done before your 36 years old. OK???" So, about four months before my 36th birthday, I walked in and got my first ever mammogram. The following morning, I got a call from the radiologist’s office, asking me if I could come back that day. What does one say? Ok. Not thinking much of it, back I went, for additional pictures and a sonogram.  I sat alone in the waiting room, tears streaming down my cheeks, not knowing what was to come.  The doctor called me in to tell me they found something resembling tiny pin pricks along my ducts, smaller than my pinky fingernail. He was going to send my screens to my Ob/Gyn, Dr. Alan Friedman, with a recommendation for a biopsy.  He assured me that based on my age and health, the odds were in my favor.

Enter Dr. Rachel Dultz of Princeton, New Jersey, a wonderful woman, a fantastic doctor and an amazing surgeon! My biopsy was scheduled for the end of February, and on March 2, well after 5pm, Dr. Dultz called me personally. Sigh—you just know what's coming—my world fell apart. I'm 36 years old. How could this be happening??  I was diagnosed with Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIN), a non-invasive very early cancer. My medical oncologist actually said, “If you have to get cancer this is the one to have.” Doctor humor, I suppose.

Again, based on my family history, and the fact that my mother’s diagnosis was well after menopause had begun, my oncologist thought it best to have the BRCA testing, as her recommended treatment would be based on the results. One bright note—I tested negative for the BRCA gene. Granted, genetics regarding cancer change daily, but given the present information and technology available, we were at least clear on that front. At this point, Dr. Dultz scheduled my surgery. My follow-up to the surgery was six weeks of radiation. I did see a medical oncologist and discuss the addition of Tamoxifen in my protocol; however, based on the limited amount of information regarding women of my age and the drug’s success, I opted to not take it. 

I found this whole circle of doctors to be very reassuring, enter Dr. Doug Fine of  Princeton Radiology—he was a slight man with a wonderful bedside manner. His entire team was very compassionate. They guided me through exactly what would be happening to me every day for the next six weeks, medically, but no one can prepare you for what it feels like to be 37 years old with most of your life ahead of you (thank God) and walk through that door every day and sit in a waiting room with people who were happy to be alive that morning—who were praying for a few more months, perhaps. Nothing can prepare you for recognizing when someone stopped coming and had probably lost their battle. On my last day of treatment, as the machine stopped, they started playing Pomp and Circumstance—you know it, the graduation song… dommmm daa dee dee dommm dummmm…. And they presented me with a diploma. I kissed them all good-by and said forgive me but I hope I never see you again!!! I got in my car and without any warning I sobbed and sobbed …I made it… it was over. Three years later, I am cancer free—three years later this event in my life has shaped everything in my future. Shortly following my last radiation treatment my husband of 10 year and I separated and have since divorced. Having survived cancer, and witnessed what I did day after day in radiation, I realized I was living someone else’s life, and while it might be a road that is not easy I wanted to be happy. I wanted to LIVE…

Rosemary Herron

I never intended to embark on this journey, however, I found myself thrust into this uncertain path in April 2001. Once begun, there was no turning back. A routine mammogram showed some micro calcifications. Since my breast tissue was very dense, an ultrasound was performed for a better view.  There it was a 2.5 cm tumor in my left breast. At first I was stunned. I was the healthiest person I knew.  I didn't drink or smoke; I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly and breastfed four children. All this was supposed to reduce my risk of getting breast cancer! I forgot about genes. Both sides of my family had a strong history of varied cancers and two first cousins had premenopausal breast cancer.

 As a nurse I was medically more prepared for what lay ahead than most, but I suffered role reversal. I was now the patient and reluctant to give up "being in charge.” I was relieved that my oncologists at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston considered me an integral member of my healthcare team. They listened to my concerns and welcomed my input. My diagnosis was Stage 2a Hormone-receptor-positive, Her 2 positive Invasive ductal carcinoma. The plan was to begin with chemotherapy (Taxol, followed by FAC) to shrink the tumor, and then perform a lumpectomy with sentinel node biopsy. Six weeks of whole breast radiation would follow, and then I would start Tamoxifen for 2 1/2 years, then switch to Aromasin for 2 1/2 yrs. Herceptin had not yet been approved for early stage Her2 positive cancer so I would not take that drug.

 The course was set. God was in charge, but I had to cooperate and I did the best I could. I got through it all with prayer, the constant love and support of my husband, my family and my friends. I still maintained control over some things, like my hair. I was going to decide when it went! I had my hairdresser shave it off before it started falling out. I even had some fun without my hair. I would show up for lunch with friends, sporting a platinum blonde wig and just enjoy their reaction! Humor makes people relax and can really erase awkwardness in situations where people just don't know what to say.

 My active treatment was completed in March 2002 and I was back to the business of life –only that life would never be the same. I now felt driven to advocate for breast cancer awareness and to make a difference for those following in my footsteps. I did not return to nursing, but instead got involved in the breast health community. I volunteered on the Susan G. Komen For The Cure's Education Board and advocated in the community for breast health awareness. I also started volunteering as a "Pink Ribbon Volunteer " in MD Anderson's Nellie B. Connally Breast Center as well as volunteering in MD Anderson's Regional Care Center in Sugar Land, Texas where I live.

I learned of a clinical trial in 2006 for the drug Tykerb, an oral medication. It was hoped that this drug could prevent recurrences in Her2 positive patients who had not taken Herceptin—that would be me. I enrolled and took the drug for a year, after which I would have a follow-up visit once a year for 10 years.  I thought this was added insurance against recurrence.

Life was pretty good. My children graduated school, my daughters got married and had babies and I could travel with my husband to exotic places. Then in 2010, almost 10 years post-diagnosis, I developed an abscess at the site of the lumpectomy. Two rounds of antibiotics finally cleared it up, although residual effect could still be seen on ultrasound. My breast oncologist decided I should be followed with an ultrasound every six months until all of the residual effect was gone. So it went until November 2012 when the ultrasound showed an "area of concern" in another part of the breast. An MRI-guided biopsy was done. This time I was scared. I had been there, done that and now knew too much to believe it was nothing. In the nearly 12 years since my diagnosis I had seen many patients with recurrences and made and lost too many friends to breast cancer. My oncologist called—the biopsy was positive. How could this happen to me again after this much time?  The very same week I received a letter from the Tykerb study researcher, stating that my follow-up was being discontinued as midterm analysis showed no significant benefit against recurrence. How ironic was that!

The pathology showed hormone-negative, Her2 positive, Invasive ductal carcinoma. This time the hormone receptors were negative, but I was still Her2 positive. The first time I had no lymph node involvement. This time a PET scan showed no positive lymph nodes on the affected left side, but two positive right pectoral nodes and two positive right axillary nodes. Yet, there was no cancer in the right breast. How could that be? My oncologists were convinced it had to be in the right breast, but nothing ever showed up on scans. 

I had started down this uncertain path in 2001, but now I was on the warpath! This new cancer was considered locally advanced and required more than a plan; it required a "war strategy!”  Once again, God would lead me through it and my husband, family and friends would once again support me. This war plan started with chemotherapy –Taxotere.  I now had Herceptin in my arsenal as well as the newly approved Her2 targeted drug, Perjeta. Being in chemotherapy first gave me time to research my surgical strategy. I requested Dr. Anthony Lucci for his excellence, passion, caring and groundbreaking research in the field of micro metastasis. I completed chemotherapy in April 2013 and had skin-sparing bilateral mastectomy surgery in May 2013. Expanders were inserted during surgery and would be exchanged for implants at a later date.

Pathology and a post-op PET scan showed I had a pathological complete response to treatment—no cancer seen anywhere!  Since I responded so well, all agreed I should continue on the Herceptin/Perjeta combo every three weeks, indefinitely. Am I thrilled about getting an infusion every three weeks? No, but if it keeps me NED (no evidence of disease), I will do it. Five weeks of supra clavicular radiation followed surgery. My radiation oncologist timed my treatments to end just in time for me to travel to London with my husband. I learned that my radiation oncologist would also be in London performing with his church choir at St. Paul's Cathedral while I was there. I managed to be at St. Paul's for the performance and it was wonderful. Was he ever surprised to see me! I mention this because we are still living life in the midst of all this turmoil!

I waited until January 2014 to have a Left Latissimus Dorsi Flap transplant. This was done to replace the previously radiated skin and tissue from my first treatment. I did well with the surgery and waited until July 2014 to do the expander/implant exchange. I am very pleased with the cosmetic results and continue to be a "work in progress.”  Nipple reconstruction is planned for April 2015 and a tattoo will follow in October 2015. I hope that will conclude the physical  "Reconstruction of Rosemary.” The emotional reconstruction is never over for those of us who have experienced breast cancer. We are continually adapting to life changes.  One cannot go through all this without some "collateral damage.” I am no exception. I developed mild lymphedema in my left arm post-radiation.  Fourteen nodes were removed from my left axilla and all were negative.  Seventeen were removed from my right axilla and all were negative as well. I also have "chemo brain,” but have developed good coping skills.

I used to think breast cancer was the worst thing that could happen to me. I was wrong.  Our son, the joy of my life, took his life on the day of my mastectomy surgery. I know breast cancer and I know how to fight it. Heartache is entirely different. I struggle with it every day and will for the rest of my life. Yet, I continue to be hopeful and embrace the life I have been blessed with. I choose to focus not on the sadness, but rather concentrate on what I can do to help others. The following quote from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury has long been a favorite of mine and expresses my sentiments of faith and hope: "I believe that man will not merely endure, but he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."  There are many things we cannot control, but we can choose what our attitude will be and how we will react to any given situation.  Given the choice, I choose a positive attitude and hope!

Jamie Kohl

It was three days before Christmas 2012 and I was busy at my job at the local bookstore. I stepped into the storeroom to take the call from my doctor, convinced it would be nothing. When she started with, “I’m so sorry to tell you this over the phone,” she didn’t have to say the word “cancer,” but she did. My first reaction was “Wow, I’ve won the lottery.” I had been completely convinced that the lump was benign. I could not have cancer. I was healthy. I have always been the caregiver. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me.

During my childhood, it was my brother who was sick. I remember being jealous of the attention he received, his stays at the Seattle Children’s hospital seemed like vacations to me.  There were presents, clowns (the Shriners) and seemingly endless Popsicles. Meanwhile, I was shuffled between various babysitters and served countless TV dinners.

Then my grandfather became ill when I was in high school—my escape hatch—my mentor—my rock. Brain cancer consumed our family for two years, taking its toll on all of us in different ways as we helplessly watched our grand patriarch crumble.

Two short years later, I was in college, when his wife, the fountain of laughter and all things fun, went to the hospital at my urging for a simple bladder operation and died two weeks later from complications of cervical cancer.

Maybe I should have been concerned that cancer was prevalent in my family, but I never was. I was healthy. A vegetarian since I was 15, I was fond of organic foods long before they were cool (or easy to find). I was a runner and I practiced yoga.  I even meditated.

So, I hung up the phone and went back to work. As I was driving home, my husband called to berate me for something I hadn’t done. I broke into tears as I said, “But I have cancer.” Only diagnosed for a few short hours and already I was using the cancer card. Then I announced, that we weren’t telling the kids, or anyone until after Christmas. For the next two weeks, we barely mentioned it.

I still wasn’t concerned nearly six weeks later, as I met with my breast surgeon, Dr. Elisa Port, Associate Professor of Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. I had asked her whether she thought I should remove the breast without the tumor, prophylactically. Her response finally caught my attention. She was opposed to the idea because, she said, “It will only distract us from focusing on saving your life.” I honestly hadn’t even considered that the cancer could kill me. Luckily, I was now in the care of one of the most respected breast surgeons in the world. I remember worrying that she wouldn’t take me as a patient because my cancer was so simple.

She scheduled me for surgery the next week, where she removed my one breast with two tumors and removed 24 lymph nodes. Because the cancer was in my lymph nodes, my next ordeal was chemotherapy.
Nearly at my two-year anniversary, I still have some reconstructive surgery to complete, but my hair has grown in, I’m taking Tamoxifen, and I’m feeling fairly healthy. However, I haven’t yet embraced the “survivor” label and I’m not sure I ever will. I still feel vulnerable and lack my pre-cancer feeling of confidence in my health. I don’t feel that I’m in complete control because I don’t know why I got breast cancer, I don’t know why my grandmother got cervical cancer, or why my grandfather got brain cancer, or why my Dad got bladder cancer. And so I am not sure that I will ever feel that I have reached finality with cancer. We have much to learn about this disease.

However, I am a survivor in other ways. I survived the countless doctor visits. I survived having my right breast removed. I survived chemo. I even survived having all my hair fall out and seeing the look of horrified embarrassment on my daughter’s face when my scarf fell off at the beach. I survived the failure of my marriage. And I am surviving, even thriving, in raising three beautiful children. Life in all its glory does go on, cancer or no.

Dina Davis

In July of 2012, my life was not as I had planned. I was living at a Fort Bend area women’s shelter. I was a victim of domestic violence from my now ex-boyfriend. Because of my life at the time, I had not had my yearly mammogram for five years.
 
I spent from May to July of 2012 getting four mammograms and two ultrasounds through Ben Taub Hospital. While I was visiting family in Maryland, I received a call from the hospital, telling me I needed to come back to get a biopsy. I was very scared, especially since I had no job or insurance at the time. The biopsy diagnosed me with HER 2+, Stage III breast cancer in July, 2012. According to mayoclinic.org, the diagnosis of HER2+ breast cancer is a cancer that “tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. In about 1 out of every 5 breast cancers, the cancer cells make an excess of HER2 due to a gene mutation…. This is a gene mutation that occurs only in the cancer cells and is not a type of mutation that you can inherit from a parent.”
 
Thank God, my mom, who lives in Houston, works at MD Anderson, so I knew it was the best place for me and that’s where I wanted to get my treatment. A social worker at Ben Taub signed me up for Medicaid and told me it would be at least 30 days before I would know if I was approved or not. Well, I love computers, so I decided one day to go online to see what the status was. When I went online, I saw I had a case number, so I call the Texas Health and Human Services myself. When I called, they told me I had just been approved and gave me my Medicaid ID number. I then called MD Anderson to get the process moving. I went to MD Anderson and they scheduled me for their own mammogram and ultrasound. After they completed the tests, they told me they wanted to do a biopsy on a lymph node. That told me the cancer had spread to my lymph node.
 
Now, my case was in the hands of my doctors, oncologist Kimberly Koenig, MD, anesthesiologist Martin Wagner, MD, plastic surgeon Melissa Crosby, MD, and radiation oncologist Eric Strom, MD; I would need a mastectomy, followed by six months of the chemotherapy drugs Taxol, Herceptin and FEC. FEC is a combination of three chemo drugs, 5 fluorouracil (5FU), epirubicin and cyclophosphamide.
 
Now, after my mastectomy, I am now taking chemotherapy once a week for twelve weeks with one drug regiment, then I will be on another type of chemo regiment once every three weeks for four weeks.
 
This has been a shocking few months but I am keeping positive through it all. I am suffering from heart problems and other effects from the chemo. I am experiencing PVCs (premature ventricular contractions), a recognized side effect of the Herceptin. While undergoing my chemo, I had to have a cardiac ablation to destroy the small area of my heart that was creating my heart rhythm problems.
 
During my chemo, I am staying with my mother until I am able to work.  I am close to being back to a shelter and trusting God. I really now want my reconstructive dflap surgery to finally say this cancer process is done. That will happen in the future. My appearance bothers me, but the scars remind me I made it.
 
In the meantime, I will help other women when I can because I know God has a plan for me. My friend, cancer survivor Rosemary Herron helped me through the tough times with her great support. She also put me in touch with Emma and her foundation.
 
So I will fight and help others—I am still standing and fighting like a Girl!
 
(Editor—You can read about Rosemary Herron and her volunteer work to help those with breast cancer in Sugar Land at http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/sugar_land/news/sugar-land-cancer-survivor-helps-others-going-through-it/article_e3984133-dd8d-5c40-902d-f89ce351457e.html.)

Roberta Schwartz

Roberta Schwartz

It has been 17 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer—17 beautiful years filled with experiences and memories.  I now have a husband, three beautiful children, and a wonderful career.   I have moved to a new state and have nearly completed a doctorate.  One might say that I am the perfect survivor story. 

My survivor story is no different than most—except, perhaps, for my age at diagnosis.  I was 27 when I was diagnosed with a Stage I breast cancer.  The lump was found under my arm by an obstetrician who referred me to a breast surgeon. He was convinced that it was benign, but much to his surprise and mine, I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  I spent most of my 27th year completing my course of treatment with two lumpectomies, one mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and reconstruction at Beth Israel and Weill Cornell in New York City.

Breast cancer wasn’t the only thing that happened while I was 27.  I was introduced to my now incredible husband in the fall—six months after diagnosis.  He loved me in spite of my treatment (and unsightly hair).  He said that I had a “glow” but the first night he didn’t realize it was due to the chemo. 

Since my diagnosis, not every day has been perfect and rosy.  I lost my mother and a great uncle who were very important in my life.  I gave birth to three children—one of whom has a serious neurological condition.  No one promised that life will be perfect as a survivor—in fact, you survive to live life with all of its ups and downs.  But, you look at life differently. 

I have learned to celebrate both the good and the bad.  I made a choice to have children, despite the concerns that the cancer would return and my husband would have the unbalanced, singular burden of raising the children.  I never gave up my career and loved growing professionally in healthcare administration.   Working is not always perfect—but I love the challenges and celebrations of the hospital.  I got the amazing pleasure of starting the Young Survival Coalition for young survivors, moving to Texas and now, have almost finished a Ph.D. 

I love life.  I love waking up each day and seeing the sun shine.  I love walks around the neighborhood, seeing the flowers bloom in the spring and the crisp, cold mornings of the fall.  I love going to work each morning and coming home to my children each evening.  I love friends and family, travelling and going to local celebrations. 
Seventeen years is a long time.  I used to look in awe at the women who were long-time survivors—wondering if I would ever achieve those years.  Now, I am one of those survivors.  I am one of the lucky ones.  I live each day as though it could be a final one. 

We should all be thankful to Emma, who reaches all of us with a loving spirit.  From each time she starts an e-mail or call with “darling,” you can’t help but smile.  She reaches out to all who are in a challenging time and makes sure that they are not alone.  She embodies the spirit of living each day and welcomes new friends into her fold.  She raises money for a cure and makes most of us feel that we aren’t doing enough for the cause. 

My goal is to be with my family for many years to come and to continue to contribute to society, professionally and personally.   If you are connected with Emma, I have no doubt that each of you will do the same. 

Andrea Jeffrey

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It’s very fitting that I would be asked to share my story in May since it was in May of 2012 that my doctor “gifted” me with a baseline mammogram referral for my 40th birthday. Awesome right? I didn’t have to wait long because the MD Anderson mobile mammo truck was coming to my office a couple of weeks later. My results came back that they needed to recheck one side for “something suspicious.”
 
I made appointments for a magnified mammogram and an ultrasound and it turned out to just be calcifications. Whew! Fast forward six months to the week of Thanksgiving when, during a routine monthly self-check, I found an obvious lump in my left breast that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. I told my boyfriend, Thomas, right away and we agreed to enjoy the holiday, and then call the doctor as soon as possible. Of course, my doctor’s office was closed for the week, so while I waited for what seemed like forever until they opened on Monday, I prayed that if it was “something” that we’d caught it in time. My ob-gyn suggested I lay off the caffeine and if it was still there in two weeks, call MD Anderson, since they had my baseline mammogram. “It’s probably just a cyst,” she said.
 
Two weeks later and no change—time to make the call. I was able to get in pretty quickly for the mammogram but wasn’t able to schedule the ultrasound until January. Even though I had a feeling that my lump was in fact “something,” I knew God already knew what it was and worrying wouldn’t change that; we’d know soon.
 
I went to the ultrasound not really knowing what might happen next but I learned you should always take someone with you if you might have a biopsy. After a couple of minutes, the radiologist came in without a word but with several others and a huge tray of instruments. My gut told me this wasn’t good, so I said, “I assume you think this could be ‘something’ or you wouldn’t be doing this.”  I will never forget his response. He looked me squarely in the eye and calmly said, “I have lots of experience with this and it looks very suspicious to me.”
 
Time froze for a second as I considered the facts: I have a lump that wasn’t there six months ago; I am at MD Anderson—with an expert who sees something suspicious. In my mind, I had just been diagnosed! I was at work when I received the call five days later, confirming his suspicions—“I’m afraid I was right, you do have breast cancer.” I honestly have no idea what he said after that. Even if you are not surprised, you cannot be prepared for news like that.
 
I called Thomas and told him it was definitely breast cancer and while he called a client, an oncologist at MD Anderson to ask her how to proceed, I drove numbly to MD Anderson for them to check my biopsy site. I had had an allergic reaction to the prep and was very uncomfortable. I prayed over and over “Father, thank you that I am in the best city with the best doctors for this. I pray that we have caught it quickly and can get started soon to get rid of it.”
 
I had this overwhelming sense of urgency to get it OUT.  Then came the questions: will I have a mastectomy and chemo?  How will I tell our boys and my mother? It was important for me not to tell them until we had a treatment plan. But I did call my good friend Steph, who has published her story here as well. Her first words were “What!?  No way! If YOU have breast cancer, ANYONE can get it!”  Hello, my name is “Anyone.”  She was referring to the fact that I was in decent shape, no family history or other risk factors, and led a healthy lifestyle. It was ironic, as we met with the surgeon two weeks later, that my diagnosis was identical to Steph’s except that her cancer was at the next stage. I had Stage 1 IDC, estrogen and progesterone positive, which isn’t so bad by itself. But my tumor was a grade 3 and I was HER2+, so in English that meant that my cancer was like me, petite, very strong and likes to revisit places it’s been before—not good!
 
We sat with my surgeon, planning initially we’d do surgery the following week and even discussed that I might not need chemo, which would be awesome. Then, we decided to bring in MD Anderson’s Dr. Sharon M. Giordano, who would be my oncologist. She said that because of the specifics of my cancer, we should start chemotherapy immediately, and we’d start with the worst, AC (short for a combination of two drugs, the brand Adriamycin, which is the generic doxorubicin, and cyclophosphamide). And, yes, my long, lovely hair would be gone within the month. The process would take 15 months. I would also receive Herceptin during 12 of these months to specifically treat the HER2+ cancer and would have a port installed. I cried while Thomas squeezed my hand in silence, comforted by his quiet strength. My doctor said that, while 2013 would be a crappy year, she believed my prognosis was excellent. The plan was for treatments of AC over three months, then switch to another Taxol and Herceptin for 12 straight weeks, and then surgery followed by radiation, and finally, continue Herceptin until May of 2014.
 
“Ok,” we said, “Let’s get started!”
 
Now that we had a plan, we had to tell the boys and I had to talk to my mother. I tried to downplay it so she wouldn’t worry, but since I, too, am a mother, I’m pretty sure it didn’t work. It’s the hardest thing to break bad news to those you love.  Thomas talked to our three boys and prepared them to see mom way out of her comfort zone. If you know me, you know there is “stop” and there is “go,” but not much in between.  I also declared that while chemo could take my hair, it would never take my heels! And I defiantly continued to wear my fabulous shoes even when I felt the worst.
 
I was shocked at the toll the treatment took on my body and my mind. I used to pray for God to please slow the train down a bit so I could enjoy more of my life, but this was not quite the slowing down I had in mind. Sometimes we have to be hit over the head to stop and let others take care of us. It’s how we learn to be gracious receivers. Thomas rallied the boys and my family and friends all pulled together. I will forever be grateful to my prayer warriors scattered all over the globe.
 
The coolest thing about treatment—yes coolest—was actually feeling my tumor melt away. I could literally feel it burn; it was completely obliterated by the second month! I continued to work and only missed work for appointments and the day directly following my chemo treatments. I hated feeling weak; I hated losing all my hair and I especially hated losing my mind. Chemo brain is no joke. I had many days that I called “Butter in my purse and keys in the fridge” kind of days. Fortunately, most days we all kept our sense of humor.
 
Chemo ended in July and surgery was in August. Because my tumor responded so well to chemo, my surgery was minimal and for that I am so grateful. I had a month of daily radiation and continued receiving Herceptin every three weeks. I continued to have pretty severe neuropathy in my hands that was quite painful, but fortunately six months after chemo, the pain subsided. My hair grew back completely curly and after growing back and falling out THREE times, my eyelashes finally grew back for good. Prior to my diagnosis. I had been gathering notes together to begin writing a book I’d had in my head for years. I decided the title would be “You Can’t Scare Me!” Now that I will be adding this new chapter on my cancer, I think it’s more than appropriate.
 
Once again, May is upon us, which means Mother’s Day—another birthday, my last Herceptin treatment, getting my port removed and that I am officially a breast cancer survivor! “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice with a superabundance of happiness.” Psalm 118:24 
 
Time to celebrate!

I wish we could have published this in May but it did not make it in until July.  Emma

Joann Sharnick

April, 2010. My family just held a five-year cancer-free party for me. After all, five years is a magical benchmark for breast cancer survivors. One month later, I noticed swelling in my right arm. Convinced that it was the result of over-doing it at the gym, I ignored it for a few weeks. Needless to say, the swelling never subsided. I went to a local hospital in Massachusetts where they performed a CAT scan. The results… cancer had spread to my lymph nodes under my right arm, neck and mammary space. The next day I met with a Dana Farber-affiliated doctor. I felt confident since they are considered one of the best cancer hospitals in the country.  The doctor informed me that I was terminal: no chemo and a five-year survival rate at best. I was devastated.  
 
I sat on a beautiful Cape Code beach for many hours, wondering how I would tell my parents, my two sons and sisters this devastating news. I can’t leave them. More importantly, I wont leave them. I refused to believe my prognosis.
 
I called my sister Barbara who lives in Houston, Texas. And with the help of her friend, (and now mine) Emma, I had an appointment with MD Anderson Cancer Center three days later. It was a long, anxiety-filled day. Of course, my sister Barbara never left my side, nor did she through any aspect of my treatment. I immensely enjoyed the time we spent together. We chose to take on this battle with humor and laughter.
 
 We met with Dr. Anthony Lucci and his physician assistant, Hanna. They were both wonderful. Dr. Lucci did not agree with the Massachusetts hospital’s diagnosis. Although my treatment would not be easy, he thought it would be successful. Dr. Lucci and his team gave me the option to stay in Massachusetts so I could be with my children for chemo, but my doctors were adamant that my lymph node surgery and radiation be completed at MD Anderson. Although it was a heartbreaking decision to leave my children for treatment, I was blessed that I could leave them with my devoted parents and sister, Cindy. Knowing that my children were in great hands allowed me to put myself in Dr. Lucci’s healing hands. Dr. Lucci was such a comfort to me. His knowledge and sympathetic ways put me at ease and allowed me to just focus on the positive. I knew that I was exponentially increasing my chances of survival with Dr. Lucci and his team. 
 
I had eight lymph nodes removed.  Five of the eight were cancerous, in spite of the chemo. I am so grateful that I decided to go to MD Anderson for a second opinion. I realize I am alive today because of my aggressive treatment and the support of my incredible family, whom I love with all of my heart. I guess there are two morals to this story: always be your own medical advocate; it can save your life, and never give up the gifts of laughter and humor; it will get you through the toughest days.  
 
I think one of the most important lessons one can learn from an experience like this is that every day is truly a gift, and I have received several. I had the opportunity to spend quality time with my sister, which is something we haven’t had since we moved over a thousand miles apart after college. The second was to understand that true love is so precious and I found that because of my cancer diagnosis. Can I say it was worth it?  Insanely enough, perhaps. I now believe everything happens for a reason. Life is beautiful. 
 

Tina Farinola

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I am Tina Farinola Savino and I am a seven-year breast cancer survivor, mother and a flight attendant. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2007, a newly divorced 44-year-old mom of two young boys, Massimo, age 4, and Luca, nearing age 3. It was a beautiful spring day when I received that phone call from my ob-gyn’s office on a Friday afternoon as we were all outside playing. My first thought after I was told that I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS, early stages of breast cancer), was sheer panic. As I watched my children play, the tears and fears hit me.  All I could think of was, “What about my young children?” They were too young to be left behind. So, like most people, I called my family and hit the computer. Thankfully, I had the sense to move away from my thoughts and took the weekend to absorb and embrace the diagnosis. I did, however, have to fly the next day and worked in a state of complete numbness.

I discovered a lump as I was showering a week and half before getting ready for work. My doctor performed a physical exam and was guessing at the time that it was just a swollen lymph node since it was so close to my armpit. I had also been experiencing a tremendous amount of abdominal pains for about seven months prior to the diagnosis. Most doctors wanted to diagnose the abdominal pain as irritable bowel syndrome and stress due to my proceeding divorce, but I secretly knew it was more. My doctor ordered an ultrasound on my gall bladder, kidneys and liver but everything looked clean. Nevertheless, she set up and exam for a mammogram and ultrasound since I had only had one previous mammogram in between my two pregnancies and it showed clean. At that point I was not too concerned because I had no history of breast cancer on either side of my family, which included eight aunts and two grandmothers. When I went in for my mammogram and ultrasound at St Luke’s Hospital in Houston, even the radiologist gave me a low percentage for the lump being cancerous. Its shape was not similar to typical cancer shapes. The lump was a little less than 1 cm across. “Maybe a 20% chance that it could be cancer,” is what I was told. I was also told that I have very dense breasts and that a biopsy would determine the diagnosis. After multiple family discussions, I decided to get a second opinion, which confirmed the first diagnosis: nothing showed in the mammogram and only a small lump on the ultrasound. I then chose a doctor and hospital to proceed with my treatment. I chose MD Anderson in Houston. In the meantime, my ob-gyn was constantly monitoring some solid masses surrounding my ovaries. After my diagnosis of DCIS, we decided to proceed with a laparoscopy to determine what was going on with my ovaries and possibly perform a single or double oophorectomy (removal of the ovary). During the surgery my doctor decided that everything looked good, but that we would continue to monitor my ovaries with ultrasounds.

My breast surgeon suggested a lumpectomy followed by radiation, which sounded good to me. So, 10 days after my laparoscopy, I had the lumpectomy. The pathologist’s results showed the tumor to be much larger than both ultrasounds: about 4.5 x 2.5 cm, not exactly small but non-invasive. My surgeon told me she couldn’t get a clean margin on two sides of the tumor, but felt confident that the radiation would take care of the area in question. I began to feel uneasy about this but went home to recover as quickly as I could so that I could resume taking care of my boys.

Two weeks later I returned for my post-op visit and for my first visit with my breast radiation oncologist. My mother and sister, Claudia, came with me so that I could get all the correct information with my “secretaries.”   While meeting with the radiation oncologist, she shared with me the pathology report, which showed my tumor to be the highest grade of cancer with a 12-20% chance of it returning. The problem was that after radiation, it is difficult to reconstruct a breast if the cancer returned. I was not comfortable with those numbers since I already had a low batting average, so to speak. I was told to think about a mastectomy, which I was already considering. I then went to my next appointment with my breast surgeon oncologist. She was very pleased with the results of my surgery but I informed her that I was now thinking of a mastectomy for added insurance; I wanted to be around to raise my children. After speaking with my radiation oncologist and my family later that night, I made my decision to go through with the mastectomy. Also, at this point, I declined to take the standardized protocol of Tamoxifen, because my levels of estrogen were not high enough to outweigh the risks of taking the drug.

Six weeks later, I had my mastectomy. It was not without some minor complications because of the skin sparring lumpectomy, but I made it through a couple of rough days in the hospital. I went home to recover and within two and half weeks after the drainage tubes were removed, began my true healing. I was, however, left with severe atrophy in my right arm and had to begin a four-month, three day-a-week intense physical therapy to regain the use of my arm. I could not lift passenger’s bags, nor even close the overhead bins. It was even difficult for me to drive. At this point I also began the long process of breast reconstruction with the tissue expander and implant process. I then had the second of my four reconstructive surgeries.

Seven months after my diagnosis, my younger sister, Claudia, was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. This was a tremendous blow to our parents. Claudia’s pathology results showed her to be ER/PR (estrogen/progesterone) positive as well as HER2 positive. Her journey would include a single mastectomy as well, plus chemotherapy. It was a very tough battle for her. Because I work for the best airline ever and have wonderful insurance, I was able to get BRCA testing done, but not without a fight from the young gene specialist at the hospital. Thankfully for Claudia and me, the tests were negative.

In the meantime my stomach issues continued and after further testing, my gastroenterologist feared that I might have some tumors in my intestines. My ob-gyn wanted to check out more tests results of solid mass again on my ovaries.  I was now starting off 2008 with my five surgeries with in one year. I had already taken a six-month leave from work in 2007 and was facing more time off in 2008. My family support truly helped me with the care of my young boys but I was honestly beginning to feel the emotional and financial drains of all these surgeries and time off. So, as I headed off to this big surgery, I continued my ritual of praying my grandmother’s rosary and hoping for the best. My ob-gyn began the surgery. She found my right ovary engulfed by a benign tumor and performed a single oophorectomy. She discovered something in her scope leading back to her original suspicion of my gall bladder the year and a half before. Next, the surgeons inspected nine feet of my intestines and found nothing other than a very diseased gall bladder that was blocking my intestines. It was removed, too. I remained in the hospital for six days to recover and I lost nearly 10 pounds, quite a bit at the time. This delayed another part of the reconstructive phase on my breast; I was supposed to have fat grafting performed to help with the shape of my new prosthetic breast.

It took me nearly two months to gain back the weight in order to perform fat grafting surgery. Also, I couldn’t lift anything over 10 pounds for four to six months afterwards, due to my internal sutures. It was a very challenging time for my boys and me. Thankfully, they learned to climb up on the dinner table and into their high chairs and mastered the art of getting into their own car seats. But I surely did miss picking up my babies!!!

Within the next few months, I was able to have my next two reconstructive surgeries to complete my “new look.” Even though I had non-invasive cancer, I suffered through seven surgeries within one year, four months of physical therapy and an additional month of lymphedema therapy because of the removal of 14 lymph nodes in my right arm, and a year off from work. I continue to battle lymphedema issues today.

The most important fact of this story is that I’m here and I survived breast cancer and I will be around to raise my children. I attribute this to my faith in God, my family support and my will to stay strong. I got in the gym in between every single surgery, even with drains!! I implore everyone to be pro-active in your health and routinely perform self-exams. Listen to your body. My sister and I were very fortunate to have family support and we are very blessed in many ways.

Sarah Thompson

In November of 2012, I went to my General Practitioner for a full health workup. At the age of 46, I hadn’t had my first mammogram yet, so he scheduled one for me on December 4th. During the test, the technician saw a suspicious mass on my right breast, booked me for a biopsy on December 16th and an ultrasound December 18th

About a week later while at work, I received a call from the doctor’s office, telling me that the results had come in. I went and sat in my car while I spoke with the nurse.  She stated that I could make an appointment for the doctor to go over them in person or she could get him on the phone.  While I would have much rather spoken with him face to face, I was extremely anxious to find out after beginning the process several weeks earlier. The waiting is hell but results come when they come. By nature I am a patient, positive person. But I needed to know right then because NOT KNOWING was wreaking havoc on me.

She placed me on hold as the call was put through. That hold seemed very long to me although it couldn’t have been more than a minute. The doctor came on the line and, after exchanging greetings, told me that the pathology was consistent with an invasive ductal carcinoma. I have breast cancer. He then explained that a lumpectomy may be performed versus a mastectomy and said he could see me right away to discuss all of this in person. I responded that I would be there within the hour. As the call ended, I sat in my car in disbelief, stunned, quietly sobbing. Over the prior weeks, my husband and I had numerous talks about the possible outcome of the tests, kicking solutions around as to how to deal with the worst possible diagnosis, juggling home and work while doing whatever it took to get through it. I collected myself for a few moments, and then sent him a text to call me as soon as he can. In seconds we were on the phone. While I struggled to maintain some composure, as soon as I uttered the words, “I have breast cancer,” I dissolve into tears. My husband of 21 years was initially silent. Then, as only he could, reassured me that we would get through this together. 

A second biopsy was scheduled for December 26th. My older sister, who lives about two hours away, left her family on Christmas evening to drive up and take me to my 8:30 a.m. appointment. Once we got back home, she was my “nurse” - switching out the cold packs, keeping me hydrated, cooking and dealing with my three four-legged children - a Great Pyrenees named Gretchen, a German shepherd mix rescue, named Kobe and a Terrier mix rescue named Weezer! God bless my sister and her patience!!

I kicked off 2013 with my first visit to a local breast surgeon to whom I was referred by my employer, a two-year survivor who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. The surgeon reviewed my tests and stated that a lumpectomy would most likely be the procedure she would perform. I had no family history of breast cancer, but did have a second cousin with ovarian cancer, so she encouraged me to have a BRCA test. 

On January 6th, I had a PEM (Positive Emission Mammography) scan. My breast surgeon called me two and a half weeks later with the results. The test revealed an additional mass that had initially been overlooked. Now a lumpectomy wasn’t really an option. My best chance of coming out of this out cancer-free was a skin-sparing mastectomy. I told her that I wanted to schedule the surgery as soon as possible, to which she replied, “there’s really no hurry – it isn’t spreading.” Hearing this response made me angry! When you know you have cancer, you just want it out. That is when I made the decision to find another doctor. 

My employer’s sister has worked at M.D. Anderson for 20+ years and he offered to contact her to get me an appointment. While I was tempted, Houston is three hours away and I wanted to be close to home. In the meantime, I had three other people tell me they could help me get in to MDA, which I said I’d think about. I have been known to be a bit stubborn at times. After so many folks offering to help me be seen there, I still didn’t grasp that going there would give me the most peace of mind and be the best decision for me. I was seeing the difficulties with the travel back and forth instead of the benefits. Then, I had lunch with one of my dearest friends and shared my diagnosis with her. She is the one who actually “took the bull by the horns,” so to speak.  She told me her boss, Ken, whom I’d met through my job in the apartment industry, had all kinds of contacts. Would I mind if she told him? I said, “No, go ahead.”  The next morning, I have an email from him to Emma Jacobs asking if she could help me get an appointment. Within 24 hours, I had another email, forwarded by Emma, from Dr. Anthony Lucci, a breast surgeon at M.D. Anderson, stating he could see me within the week.

My first visit was on February 19th and my sister-in-law took off from work to take me since she had worked in the medical district for several years and was familiar with the area. The morning was spent in tests and the initial consultation with Dr. Lucci was to be the following day. On the 20th, my sister took the day off to be there for me during the consultations. Dr. Lucci immediately put us at ease with his depth of knowledge, kind manner and brilliant smile! I would not require any treatment prior to surgery.  At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision. I was READY for this!
I underwent a skin-sparing mastectomy on March 26, 2013 and went home the next morning. In a couple of weeks I would learn whether or not chemotherapy, radiation or both, was recommended. The weekly visits for the expansions were difficult and uncomfortable, but I was grateful to get through them.

On April 11th, I had the first appointment with my oncologist. The pathology tests on the tumor had not yet come in. When they did, she could recommend a course of treatment. On May 3rd I received the results of the Oncotype DX testing which revealed that I was in a low risk category with an estimated 5-year recurrence rate of 10% while on concurrent tamoxifen. I would not need chemotherapy!

In September, my reconstruction surgery was performed. I have had no issues to speak of and am back to leading a normal life. I have never been one for tattoos, but I will be getting one in the coming months!  My first post-surgery mammogram is scheduled for March 21st. I am thinking positive thoughts and ready to have those confirmed! On March 26th, I plan to have one hell of a celebration for the anniversary of my surgery! Thank you, Emma, for asking me to share my story. It has helped me, and I hope it will help others.