Executive Director, Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce
On May 10, 2010, Deborah Milone accepted her dream job as executive director of the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce, an organization she had been a member of since 1992, which provides services to businesses, residents, and tourists in Northern Westchester and Putnam County. Exactly two months later, on July 10, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“When you first hear the news, you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,’” Milone says. “And I just started the job, and loved the job. I thought, ‘Why now?’”
Thankfully, Milone was diagnosed early and was able to start treatment immediately. Milone told her board chairman, Bill Powers, the news, but didn’t tell the entire board about her diagnosis right away. “Everybody hears ‘cancer,’ and you don’t want to start going into details,” Milone says. “I wanted to do my job, live my life, and deal with this privately.”
Powers suggested she take two weeks off after her lumpectomy surgery as her doctor recommended, but Milone insisted on showing up for work a week later. “Because I really believe in the mission of the Chamber of Commerce, I felt an obligation to maintain and keep it going,” says Milone, who at the time had no other staff. “It was personal motivation, as well. I wanted to make my mark.”
Surrounded by a team of doctors, Milone was under anesthesia for four hours in order for them to find the affected lymph nodes. Physically, Milone says the surgery “hurt, but it was something I could tolerate.” The surgery was more emotionally grueling. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what they’ll find in there. I don’t know what I’ll look like.’”
Milone was able to return to work the next week, as she’d hoped, but to limit the likelihood of the cancer returning, she still had to get a month of radiation, begin Tamoxifen treatment, and receive a low dosage of chemotherapy every three weeks for four-and-a-half months.
Although she logged 70 hours in the doctor’s office over six months, Milone scheduled her medical appointments so they were least disruptive to her work schedule. Her husband would drive her to chemotherapy appointments on Fridays, and she would be back in the office on Mondays. “One time, I had chemo treatment on Friday, and had to go to a grand opening on Saturday,” Milone says.
“I am still in awe that Deb was able to manage her treatment schedule and yet meet her work-related obligations and responsibilities,” says Powers. “Her boundless commitment to the Chamber, even during that uncertain time, has led to exceptional growth, expanded benefits and services, and a re-engaged membership. Deb handled things so gracefully, effectively, and seamlessly that some Chamber members are going to be surprised to hear about her breast cancer.”
While, physically, Milone felt strong, her treatments of Tamoxifen, an endocrine therapy, put her body through menopause, which threw her hormones out of whack and left her waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. “People have commented that I was overly anxious,” she says. “I was a nutcase a couple times.”
And her month of radiation in March 2011 coincided with her busiest month yet at work. She started radiation the week before the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards dinner, and ended it the week after its first-ever consumer expo week, the Hudson Valley Gateway Experience. The radiation nurses asked her to take time off, but she ignored their advice. She would go to work in the morning, drive up to Fishkill, New York, for treatment in the afternoon, and then go straight back to work. “People said radiation was going to knock me out, but my energy level was pretty good,” Milone says.
There were some logistical hurdles. When she tried on gowns for the annual dinner-dance, her body was still marked up with blue lines used in prep for radiation treatment. But by the time of the awards dinner, held at The Mansion at Colonial Terrace in Cortlandt Manor, Milone’s blue lines had washed away. And while she at first shied away from discussing her diagnosis with Chamber members, by this time she was open about her diagnosis. Two of her fellow board members were diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time, and they all supported each other.
Milone has now finished radiation and chemotherapy. “In hindsight, I consider myself exceptionally lucky,” she says. “I feel good. There’s no guarantee it’s not going to come back, but I don’t think about it until I go in for my mammogram.” And Milone is grateful she had her job as a distraction. “If you stay home and think about things, it makes things worse,” she says. “You have no control of what’s happening to you physically. But you have control over what else is happening.”