Stories of Survival
Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate by age or gender, class or race. Six county residents recount their personal experiences.
(page 1 of 2)
Photography by John Rizzo
The Complicated Recovery
Caroline Walsh was 42 and it was only her third time having a mammogram. It wasn’t a good one. “I know that there has been a lot in the press lately about pushing the initial screening to the age of fifty, but I’m living proof that screening should remain at forty,” the Mount Vernon resident says. “I was diagnosed with a non-invasive form of breast cancer, and, in a matter of weeks, I’d gone from ‘perfectly healthy’ to planning a double mastectomy.”
She got the bad news while at work, where she is a vice president at a Manhattan-based advertising firm. “I was in a meeting when the call came in. When I heard the word 'cancer,' all the rest of the conversation was just noise.”
The cancer was detected in only one breast, but her husband was the first to bring up the idea of a double mastectomy as a preventive measure against a recurrence in the other. “He told me that he fell in love with me, not my breasts, and that he wanted me to be around for the next forty years.” She had the double mastectomy last spring and woke up with brand-new perky breasts.
But complications soon developed. Instead of healing, skin near the incision site developed necrosis—the cells were dying. When the doctors removed the dead skin, there wasn’t enough healthy tissue left to cover the implants. They were removed and replaced with expanders. Saline was injected into these balloon-like devices until the skin had stretched enough. In August, the expanders were replaced with silicone implants. Walsh is today considered to be virtually 100-percent cured.
“My first question after surgery was, ‘How soon can I swing a golf club?’” she recalls. “They said two weeks, and I was at the club, first putting, then chipping. After about an hour, the club pro came out and asked, ‘Does your doctor know you are hitting balls?’ When I said yes, he asked, ‘Does he know how long you’ve been out there hitting balls? No? Then stop swinging that club!’”
At press time, Walsh was looking forward to playing in a husband-and-wife tournament at The Leewood Golf Club in Eastchester.
The Only Man in the Waiting Room
“When I told people I had breast cancer, they would look at me like I had three heads,” Mike Rosa of Thornwood says. “They believed that men don’t get breast cancer or that only overweight men who have ‘man boobs’ get it.” But nearly 2,000 men will get the disease this year (compared with more than 200,000 women), according to The National Cancer Institute.
Two years ago, Rosa, a building engineer for Verizon, noticed a strange pimple on one of his nipples. He thought it would go away eventually, but it kept getting larger. Finally, his wife insisted he see his primary-care physician. “He took one look and sent me to see a breast-cancer specialist. It turned out to be Stage II cancer—I’ve blocked out what type—and I was in the OR a few days later.”
Rosa had a mastectomy (he says his scar, about an inch in diameter, looks like a bullet hole), followed by 16 weeks of chemo, one session every other week. “That whole year was a blur. A woman I met at chemo said that I’d look back on this as the year I lived through hell—she was right. But now I feel good and get checked every six months. Of course, I’m the only man in the waiting room, and I get some strange looks.”
To prevent a recurrence in his other breast, Rosa’s oncologist put him on Tamoxifen, which interferes with the activity of estrogen. Just 18 months into a recommended eight-year regimen, he is fed up with it. "I have severe leg pain and night cramps so bad that I scream, and the hot flashes are unreal,” Rosa says. “I keep a thermometer near me and keep checking it, but it is always 98.6 and still I’m burning up.”
To cope, Rosa works on vintage Volvos. “Whenever things get too bad, I go to my garage. It helps, but I think about this every day of my life, wondering what’s next.”
The Young Mom
At 34, Monique Johnson of Tuckahoe was on top of the world. Her husband, Dean, had just landed his dream job and she had given birth to Jack, a new brother for three-and-a-half-year-old Chloe. During a routine postnatal checkup, Monique commented that her right breast “felt weird.” Her OB-GYN guessed it was probably a blocked milk duct but sent her for an ultrasound and a needle biopsy to be on the safe side.
“I was having the first professional photos taken of my two children when I got the call that I had breast cancer,” Johnson recalls. In addition to the tumor, there were invasive cells throughout her breast. She had to have a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and Herceptin treatment, a targeted therapy that latches on to cancer cells and keeps them from dividing and growing. “I was supposed to be home on maternity leave, enjoying my new baby and little girl,” she says. “Not this.”
A social worker, Johnson knew she had to figure out some way to manage. She went to support groups but felt even more alone; most of the women were older, and had very different concerns. That changed when she met another young mother, Grace Ann Acocella–Pensiero. “We could talk about what it was like to be a mom, how to balance ballet classes and chemo. We felt there should be a group dedicated to young survivors, one that emphasized the emotional needs of women with young children and those just married, or still dating.”
So the two founded In the Pink Foundation (inthepinkfoundation.org) and hold support groups at Gilda’s Club (Johnson is currently working on forming a strategic alliance with the organization to expand its offerings). “We have monthly group sessions and girls’ nights in,” Johnson says. “Sometimes it’s like Cancer Girls Gone Wild.”