"Sharing, comparing, and listening to other women was encouraging. It's important to know you're not alone."
If Joan Casserly has an extra spring in her step these days, it's probably because she's feeling more like herself than she has in a long time. Nearly a year and a half ago, the Hunterdon County resident was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Stage 2 breast cancer. A routine mammogram in the spring of 2009 detected not a lump but a straight line of what would later be revealed as cancer in her left breast. During a biopsy, a second area was detected. She opted for a bilateral mastectomy, although the cancer seemed to be confined to one breast ("I discussed it with my children," she says. "I wanted peace of mind. I didn't want to walk around wondering, Is it going to happen in my other breast in a year or two?")—and during surgery, a third area was detected, plus precancerous spots in her right breast. Casserly opted for reconstruction with implants, but twice contracted a rare complication that prompted her to remove them. And through it all, she faced issues related to her appearance.
Says the busy Real Estate broker, "I deal with people. I'm used to getting dressed up, putting on makeup, making sure my hair looks fine. I didn't feel like a woman. It was disheartening." But Sarah Mandel, RN, LSW, CBPN-C, soon had Casserly feeling more like the woman she was prior to her diagnosis. As the breast nurse navigator at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center, Mandel frequently fits women with wigs and bras donated by the American Cancer Society, and with prosthetics donated by an out-of-business boutique in Elizabeth. Casserly needed all three.
Losing her hair, Casserly admits, was traumatic. "But Sarah showed me to her collection of wigs and said, 'Try this on! Try that on!' When we found one that worked, she said, 'Take it'—so I had it cut and fitted, and no one even knew I lost my hair."
Her experience with bras and prosthetics was similar: "When you go to a department store, nobody knows anything about bras for prosthetics. Sarah said, 'Try this on. Try that on.'
"She gave me one of the bras from the American Cancer Society. It was wonderful. Before that, I didn't know where to go. I had gone someplace else, and wasn't happy with the way I was fitted. A friend said to me, 'Joan, that doesn't fit you well.' I said to Sarah, 'What do you think?' She opened her closet, and it was like going to a department store—but so much more comfortable.
"I had used up my Medicare allotment for bras and prosthetics. But Sarah said, 'If it fits and it's comfortable, take it home.' 'It's not going to cost money?' I asked. And Sarah said, 'I'm just so happy to be able to help.' "
Springfield resident Rose Romeo recounts a similar experience. "I was very self-conscious about my appearance," she says. "I didn't feel comfortable. I felt like everyone was staring at me." A few weeks ago, Mandel fit her with a wig very similar to her own hair: light brown with blonde highlights, shoulder-length, and parted on the side. "It made me feel so much better," she says.
For both Casserly and Romeo—and for so many women who find themselves on the other side of a breast cancer diagnosis—support groups have helped to spur their healing and recovery. "I was apprehensive about joining because I didn't want to hear someone else's problems," says Casserly. "I thought it would be depressing, but it was enlightening to see that other people are going through this and coming out okay. It was like a light at the end of the tunnel. Sharing, comparing, and listening to other women was encouraging. It's important to know you're not alone."
To learn more about bra, wig, and prosthetic services, or to donate to the program, call 908-522-6210.