Stories of Survival
Just as no two women are alike, neither are their experiences with breast cancer—yet all are bound in their determination to overcome the disease. Here, members of the Overlook family share their own stories of breast cancer detection, treatment … and survival
"There are too many stories."
The women you see on these pages came together in the Breast Center at Overlook Hospital on a beautiful late-September afternoon, to be photographed for this special issue and to talk about their experiences with breast cancer. All are members of Overlook's own family—nurses, a pharmacist, administrators, and more, all joined together in their fight to face down their greatest opponent: breast cancer. But following the photo shoot, it was Julie DiGioia, MD, who summarized the situation best of all, and with the fewest words: "There are too many stories," she said. "Let these women tell their stories."
DiGioia wasn't being shy or guarded or difficult; quite the contrary. Rather, as both a breast surgeon and as a breast cancer survivor, she had patients to see. It was more important to her that we hear their stories rather than her own.
In fact, the women you see on these pages and on our cover have all been saved by crusading physicians just like DiGioia (and in some cases, by DiGioia herself). Here, some of them lift their voices to share their stories
"I always had it in the back of my mind."
Carol Smith, RN, the nurse manager on several of Overlook's surgical floors, was 53 years old when she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer, this past January. But this is not her only experience with breast cancer; her mother had been diagnosed years earlier, at age 62. It was because of her mother's history that Smith began having regular mammograms at age 35—"I always had it in the back of my mind," she says—and it was because of a routine screening that Smith's own cancer was found.
Given her own diagnosis and family history, she opted to undergo genetic testing. "I have a daughter, and I did it for her," Smith says. "I have two sisters, and I did it for them as well." The results were negative, which provided some peace of mind.
Smith underwent a lumpectomy and radiation, and continues with a regimen of tamoxifen to prevent a recurrence. Six months after her treatment, a follow-up mammogram and MRI came back free of any signs of breast cancer. "There are so many different treatment options," Smith says to any woman who may find herself in a similar situation. "You have to figure out what's best for you and what you can and can't deal with."
"You're supposed to feel scared, but that's okay."
"Don't be afraid to ask questions."
It was a "pinhole-sized area of concern" on a routine mammogram that first led to Nursing Coordinator Kathleen Finan's diagnosis. A follow-up MRI revealed additional potential areas for concern in both breasts, and it wasn't long before Finan, at age 49, found herself facing a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction. It was somewhat of a whirlwind: that initial mammogram in January 2008, the MRI in February, a biopsy in April, surgery in May, reconstruction in August—and an ongoing cycle of tamoxifen to prevent recurrence. The reconstruction is not yet complete, but Finan is glad she opted for it and she remains positive. "I have a good support system and a lot of good friends beside me," she says. To other women, her advice is simple: "Don't be afraid to ask questions. You're supposed to feel scared, but that's okay."
"It was highly aggressive."
Business Coordinator Irene Reichert's journey with breast cancer—and survivorship—has been a long one. A "very bad family history" of the disease prompted her to be vigilant about mammograms, going for routine screenings every six months from the time she was 45. Then, 12 years ago, at age 50—within the span of just six months—a two-centimeter lump had developed. "It was highly aggressive," Reichert recalls, "but luckily it was in stage 1 because I was vigilant."
She was tested for the BRCA 1 and 2 genes, as well as for Her-2-Neu ("I have a daughter and a granddaughter," she says, "so I worry"), but all came back negative. Nevertheless, Reichert and her doctors believe that she likely carries a mutant gene that just has not been isolated yet.
Reichert had a lumpectomy, followed by six months of radiation and chemotherapy. But with the benefit of 12 years' worth of research and progress since her diagnosis, Reichert wishes she had had a double mastectomy. In fact, knowing what we now know about the link between breast and ovarian cancers, Reichert opted just a few months ago to have her ovaries removed prophylactically. She admits that she has struggled with survivorship. It was just a couple of years ago that she began to shake the feelings of uncertainty that she harbored, and began telling herself, "Maybe I'll be okay for a while." Still, she fears a recurrence, and continues to arm herself with all the tools at her disposal: Every six months, she goes for a mammogram, a PET scan, breast MRI, and blood work—"Because if it comes back, I'll get it at an early stage again, hopefully," she says. "I'm very glad I'm still here."
The Overlook Difference
We provide patients with educational materials, so every patient knows what to expect throughout her experience at the Breast Center.