Living with Breast Cancer

Judith McGinn 10/24/06More articles
Living B.C.

If you don’t know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let me be among the first to welcome you back from your coma. Life has gone on while you were asleep. All month women have been telling stories of strength, sadness and triumph. The three women whose stories you’re about to read ( yours truly included), have experienced a kaleidescope of emotions since being diagnosed with breast cancer. What ties us together is a positive attitude and the fact we want to show others that there is hope after b.c. We hope our stories may help someone else avoid what we went through.

Kristen Rossi, 33, is a beautiful, bright and bubbly mother of an active toddler. She and her husband and son have been living in Skaneateles since the spring of 2005. “I just love it here.” Not only is she a busy mom, she has thrown her energies into community life without inhibition. Her kitchen table is awash with seating charts for the Symphony Guild Christmas luncheon, bearing testament to her active support.

Kristen is also a runner, and leads a very active and healthy lifestyle. Last week she began counseling women who have been newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Oh, and she had a bilateral mastectomy right before she moved here. A malignant tumor was found during a mammogram while she was still nursing little Will.

Her own mother had breast cancer when she was 32 so Kristen said she always thought she might get it too. She was diagnosed at the same age as her mom. She is a woman with a true sense of style. After she found out chemotherapy would make her hair fall out, she bought a bottle of pink champagne, went to her hairdresser, they toasted to survival, and had her head shaved! “Any ounce of control I could take in the face of that situation was important to me.” She decided against reconstructive surgery initially because the healing time would have been much longer. “I needed to heal as soon as possible so I could hold Will, just get my arms around him. It was a decision made with my husband, who has been fantastic through this.”

Wearing pink at the Run for the Cure in New York City this year she proudly wore pink. “Chemotherapy brought me to my knees,” she said, “but I believe it is my mission in life to help other women who have to go through this. You have to go through it to get through it.”

Valerie Gray is a lively woman who, along with her husband, runs Robert Gray’s Funeral Home. She is actively involved in the B&B in their adjacent property and also babysits her grandson every weekday. To say she has a busy life is putting it mildly. “Sometimes I feel I’m too busy,” she said. A malignant tumor was discovered in 1993. She was 44, another woman below the average age for breast cancer. Her’s was also detected by mammogram. She had a lumpectomy on her right breast, along with removal of 30 lymph nodes under her arm, followed by eight weeks of radiation. Tamoxifen was prescribed as a maintenance drug for five years following surgery as the tumor was hormone positive, meaning estrogen caused it to grow faster.

Life ticked happily along. She and her husband went on a trip to Aruba in 1998 and wham! She woke up in the morning and her arm was swelled so huge it was unrecognizable.

Lymphedema had arrived with a vengeance. It can occur at any time after trauma to your lymphatic system, either due to removal of nodes or as a result of radiation. It took six months of having her fingers and arm wrapped in elastic to reduce the swelling to a manageable size. She wears an elastic sleeve every day and will for the rest of her life, but she says she is used to it and hardly thinks about it now.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of Val’s struggle. She has been diagnosed two more times and has had a double mastectomy. Chemotherapy on two occasions caused her to lose her hair twice. But she is past her treatments and is thriving. Reconstruction is always possible, but she doesn‘t want to face another surgery right now. “I have the greatest husband and family in the world. My greatest joy is just spending time with them.” Despite all of her setbacks, Val is still smiling and wants to encourage women to have regular mammograms. It is crucial for survival to catch the disease in its early stages.

When I was diagnosed, in 2002, I was statistically on the button at 50. After I got over the initial shock of diagnosis I called all my friends and said, “Let’s have a party!” I figured I was feeling the best I was going to for quite a while so there is no time like the present to get together and have some fun. I was living in Ireland at the time, with just my immediate family, so friends were like extended family to me.

Unlike Kristen and Val, I found my lump through self exam. In fact, I found lumps all the time! Over the years I had had at least seven or eight aspirated, with negative results. I thought it was just one more. So I let it go for a few months thinking it would shrink, which they often did. This one wasn’t like the rest and I had a lumpectomy in January 2002 followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I am on a maintenance drug, Arimidex, an alternative to Tamoxifen, which my system could not tolerate. Last fall I had another operation to remove the remaining tissue in my right breast as I was having a lot of pain due to excessive scarring caused by the radiation. I have recently been diagnosed with lymph edema. I urge all survivors to be more careful with the affected arm than I was and follow doctors’ orders not to lift anything over ten pounds!

You get used to wearing a prosthetic breast form. Sometimes I leave it in the bathroom or in my swim bag, since I have an extra. I named it Betty (Betty Boob) and have been known to call through the house, “Michael, have you seen Betty? I can’t find her.” One morning last year our beagle puppy, Bunny, trotted past me with Betty in her mouth. She had managed to find her for me and was happily nibbling away.

Kristen said, “I never wanted to be a member of this sorority, but I now wear pink as a badge of honor.” We hear you, sister.

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