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Our Community Focus

Forever Strong

Oct 03, 2017 05:41PM ● By Elena Hutslar

We came together for a photo shoot, united with a common bond. Together we stand, a connected sisterhood, shoulder-to-shoulder, woman-to-woman, and survivor-to-survivor! Forever strong!

Lori Berkowitz

My journey, or rather nightmare, began in June 2016, when I felt a kidney-sized growth on my breast as I was putting on my bra. I went through all the required tests, scans and biopsies. It was a long, three days of waiting to get the results. When I got the dreaded call and heard those words, "You have stage 2B breast cancer, HER2-positive, and it spread to your lymph node,” it was a major shocker and one of the worst days of my life.  

I had my chemo infusions every three weeks for one year. I started to lose my hair a week after my first infusion.  I was one to always wear a wig. I have had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. As awful as all this is, I truly feel things can always be so much worse.  This nightmare reinforced the amazing constant support from family and friends and the value of other breast cancer survivors. My two amazing boys knew their mom was going to beat this! I also have such gratitude for my mom, who stayed with me during the difficult days. I'm most thankful for my husband, Greg, who truly was my angel, my rock, my everything. I will now have a new appreciation for what's really important in creating a life full of meaning.

Jen Knuckles

32 is my lucky number. It also happens to mark the number of years between my mother's passing from ovarian cancer and my diagnosis of breast cancer. Cancer is not a stranger to many of the brave women in my family. Obviously, the inherited BRCA 1 gene, linking breast cancer and ovarian cancer, was out of my control. However, there are other very important factors and actions of prevention that are within our control, including nutrition, limiting alcohol consumption, environment, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, screening/mammograms, genetic testing, and our emotional state of wellness, to name a few. All these should be demanding our full attention – right now, today!

I was lucky early detection saved my life. A diagnosis of cancer has been compared to PTSD. I would agree. In the moment you are told you have cancer, your mind and body explode into a numbing disconnect, struggling to comprehend the swinging pendulum of the motions. At some point past all this, you get a grip on the reality that is placed before you and focus your sights on the mother of all fights that is about to begin. One thing I know for sure, when we are diagnosed we find out what we are made of. Was I afraid? Heck, yeah! But, fear and faith cannot occupy the same space. So, I chose faith - the belief that I would come out the other side of all of this just fine. The support I received during treatments was amazing and so necessary to get our family through all the tough days. So, when three of my girlfriends were diagnosed after me, I was more than honored to give back and share the things I knew and what I had gone through.

Which brings me to why I am holding a watermelon. It was my go-to food that sustained me through all the gut twisting, nauseating chemo treatments. Every time another one of my girlfriends was diagnosed, she found a watermelon on her porch. From the very start, over two years ago, I have been so vocal about this journey. I have shared most everything, from my bald, henna-tattooed head, to telling my story on stage at Relay for Life, to quietly holding a friend's hand at the end of life. I believe life is about people. We are all connected by love, time and death. We covet these things. At the end of the day, we long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death. So I speak about this because having cancer is a difficult journey that no one should have to travel alone. I have found personal strength in sharing the things I now know with others. And believe me, there is so much more to be said about all of this, perhaps another time...

Debbie Shess

I am a two-time breast cancer survivor. In 2007, at the age of 42, I was called in for a follow-up mammogram to check a spot in my left breast. Thanks to an excellent technician, calcification clusters in my right breast were found, which I never would have felt with a self-exam. I was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, DCIS, Stage 0. We decided an aggressive approach was best, so two weeks later, I had a mastectomy. I thought that was it. I didn’t even think of myself as a “survivor” as I didn’t have chemo or radiation and didn’t “deserve” that title. I was moving on with life, never to deal with cancer again. Wrong! In 2016, nine years later, I discovered a mass that was growing in my reconstructed right breast, the breast I didn’t have mammograms for because I already had a mastectomy. The second time around meant surgery, chemo, and radiation to treat my Stage 3b diagnosis. It goes without saying it was a roller coaster of a year for all of us. My boys, husband, and the rest of my family are all affected by my cancer diagnosis. Family and friends supported us in every way with their generosity of spirit, love, and food. My message: Be your own best advocate, get the regular necessary tests to take care of yourself, and be diligent - it’s mandatory. And enjoy life.

Sheila Cotruvo

I don’t know if you are ever ready to hear you have cancer, but honestly, it had been a lifetime fear for me. I remember hearing the word “cancer” as a young girl, and it just sounded scary. I would hear my parents talk of the C-word about a poor someone who had it (as they looked horrified), so I knew it must be really bad. I think that’s when my fear really began.

Then, in the summer of 2016, as my dear friend was just starting treatment with her second bout of breast cancer, I noticed a change in my own breast -- no lump, just a wrinkle or inversion of sorts in my areola. I stood there looking in the mirror thinking, did my breast always have a wrinkle? Maybe? I recalled having a very itchy breast for a few weeks but attributed that to a new detergent.

So I searched “61-year old female with sudden onset inversion on nipple” on Google, and there it was, CANCER, my greatest fear. The more I read the worse it was.

After a trip to my nurse practitioner with my smiley face areola, I was off for a mammogram. They found a very small area of concern right behind the nipple, and that would be the beginning of a year of doctor’s appointments with a surgeon, oncologists, and a radiology oncologist. (My wonderful husband, Paul, escorted me to each and every one.) I was diagnosed with IDC Invasive Ductal carcinoma stage 2 estrogen driven.

I was in shock and thought my life was ending. I cried a few days to my husband and close friends. Then I decided to put my big girl panties on and just get through it, which was easier with all the love and support from my husband, kids and some very special friends. Treatment was surgery to remove the mass. I chose to have a lumpectomy and learned my lymph nodes were not involved.

I had radiation treatment and did not need chemo, which I was very grateful for. I did start a 5-year inhibitor to block my estrogen, which should help my chances of NOT having a recurrence by 50 percent. These medications can be very difficult, causing thinning hair, dry skin, and annoying joint pain, but they are worth their weight in gold if it keeps anyone from having to go through this again.

Katrine Heinz

No one wants to hear the words “You have cancer," but that was exactly the phone call I received almost two years ago. I know I am not alone. Countless others have heard those same words before and after me, but no matter how common they are they will shock you to your core. The whirlwind that starts shortly after that phone call is overwhelming. It will make you cry, cause you to make tough decisions, and even make you laugh at times at how ridiculous it all is. Being diagnosed with cancer can be a very lonely and isolating time, but I always had my support system surrounding me, for which I am eternally grateful. Everyone's journey is different and very personal, but it should never be lonely. Many of you may know someone who is going through their own battle, and no matter how courageous and strong they appear on the outside, they need you at this time more than ever.  If you, personally, are navigating your own journey, don't be afraid to lean on your friends and family.  

Kim Stanton

My name is Kim Stanton. I am a breast cancer survivor. I had a routine mammogram on February 6, 2017, followed by a second two days later. The wait for results seemed like hours. The radiologist wanted to do a biopsy of my left breast - not what I wanted to hear. I was terrified! The procedure was horrible: lying on my stomach, my left breast dangling from a hole in the exam table while they stuck needles in me. On Valentine's Day, I heard the words, “I'm sorry, Ms. Stanton, you have breast cancer.” I had a 1mm invasive grade 1 and high-grade ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). I was lucky but didn't think so then.

I called my family that evening in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Arizona. I was alone. Well, not completely. I have my friends here and my son, 19, who didn't know what to say. I saw the breast care counselor to go over the biopsy report and the diagnosis, and then I met with a team of doctors to discuss treatment options. The surgeon felt confident that a lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy, and wire guidance would be the treatment. I was satisfied with that. I watched videos and read.

My daughter was here from Chicago for the outpatient surgery. Guide wires were placed, which was like a mammogram with needles. Awful! The post-op news was not what I expected. The DCIS positive margin was not clear, so they wanted to do a re-excision (where they would remove more tissue). Surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and my niece from Arizona was able to drive out and assist me. A few days later, I was told the margin was negative but too close. She could go back in a third time or a mastectomy would be the next step. WTF?!

It was determined that a mastectomy would be best. The plastic surgeon was concerned I was too compromised for reconstruction at the time of a mastectomy. I decided to go through with the mastectomy without the reconstruction. I sought support from the American Cancer Society and others with breast cancer diagnoses.

The surgery went well. I learned of my path reports - all clear, with no need for radiation. I would be on a hormone blocker for five years. However, I was not whole. I was missing my left breast. I was fitted for a prosthesis at Nordstrom and realized, wow, this is me. This is what I look like now.

It is now September. I have not had reconstruction and am not sure if I will. After three surgeries, I’m not ready for another. I’m still healing. I am grateful to God, family, friends, and support groups that have guided me along the way. I will be there for those who may follow. Everyone has a story. Girls In It to Win It Beat Breast Cancer.