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Women Warriors

by Erica Bauwens

…From the pages of Suburban Family Magazine…

South Jersey Women Battling Breast Cancer

Breast cancer. It’s still such a regular part of our society, engrained in family memories, reshaping futures and sparking national awareness. And while October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month gives the country an annual reminder of the hardships of the disease—which affects approximately 220,000 women in the United States a year, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation—people facing breast cancer head on will tell you that the disease never takes a day off.

We had the honor of speaking to a handful of local women who had breast cancer or are continuing to battle the disease. Mothers, daughters and sisters, not unlike your own, all of whom have come out swinging in the fight for their lives. Read on to hear their stories, including their triumphs, setbacks and personal memories.

Nikki Black
At 23 years old, most people are just trying to figure out the next step. Washington Township’s Nikki Black was the same way, until June of 2013, when she noticed an abnormal lump in her breast while showering. Then life took a turn for the unexpected.

A biopsy of the spot revealed a five-centimeter tumor. “When I found out I was really upset,” Black recalls. “I went through the whole phase of asking myself:

‘Why me? How could this be happening to me? I’m so young.’” Black went through a double mastectomy and a year’s worth of chemotherapy, finishing her last treatment at the start of October. But being so young and facing breast cancer—a disease that usually affects older women—also came with other considerations and struggles that most young adults aren’t prepared to face.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer at a young age, a lot of your peers have never been through it and don’t know how to respond. It was another hard thing to go through on top of everything else.”

And one of the concerns for younger people with breast cancer is fertility, Black says. “I was only 23: That wasn’t even on my radar and, bam, I’m worrying about my fertility. So I had to go get these needles and freeze my eggs and start thinking of my fertility for the future.”

Early on in her diagnosis, Black did what most young people do: she took to social media. She started up a blog on Tumblr, called “I Don’t Know Anything About Breast Cancer,” an honest and often-comical look at her disease and treatment. In it she talks about coping with her double mastectomy, and shares a series that she calls “My Body as Canvas,” in which Black used her hair loss to paint expressive images on her scalp.

One of Black’s biggest releases, however, was her newly formed stand-up career.

“A week after I was diagnosed I did my first stand-up set about it,” Black says. That set ended up winning the Philadelphia-based WitOut Award for Best Stand Up Set. “I was new to the scene when I was diagnosed and people took care of me.” And with treatment behind her, Black is looking forward to a future full of new possibilities. “I’m much more truthful with myself after going through this. I just don’t have time to deal with fake or artificial things.”

Eileen Aitken
Call it women’s intuition or self-awareness, but sometimes when you know, you know.

“I felt a mass, and I just sort of knew I had breast cancer,” says Woodbury’s Eileen Aitken. Aitken was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2012, after undergoing several mammograms and biopsies. But while hoping for the best, Aitken was ready for what was to come.

When the diagnosis came in, Aitken went back to her roots. Her father was a semi-professional boxer, and taught Aitken in her childhood basement. “You do what you have to do. When I was diagnosed, I changed my profile picture on Facebook to a picture of pink boxing gloves to symbolize that I was ready to kick cancer’s butt.”

Aitken underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and eventual reconstruction out of the Perelman Center in Philadelphia, a medical center that her own husband, Doug, oversaw the production of as a project executive just years before. “I remember going there touring the operating rooms and the treatment centers, but I never imagined I’d actually be there experiencing them first-hand,” Aitken says.

Aitken’s treatments wrapped up in August 2013, and just two months later, she recruited a team to join her in the 60-mile, Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk. “For me, that was my sign that I was back,” she says. “I needed to prove to myself that I’m done being sick, I’m back and look what I can do now.” Aitken and her team, called the “Determined Divas and Dawgs,” have raised more than $20,000 in the last two years through the 3-day walk.

For Aitken, an athlete and avid golfer, her double mastectomy threatened to take away her most valuable tool: her swing. So she underwent special physical therapy through the Strength After Breast Cancer program offered by Good Shepherd Penn Partners in Woodbury Heights. The physical therapists were able to help with “cording,” post-surgical scar tissue that removes the mobility in one’s arms.

“I can swing again,” she says. “Breast cancer is definitely life changing; the support that you get and the love that you feel from your family and friends is wonderful. You realize how much you’re loved.”

The Pilone Sisters
More and more is being revealed about breast cancer’s tie to genetics, thanks largely to families like the Pilones of South Jersey.

For the Pilone sisters, breast cancer has been a constant threat. The disease has torn through their paternal side, taking with it four aunts, several first cousins and more. For Cherry Hill’s Tricia Pilone, breast cancer hit her older sister Diane in 2000. After Diane’s double mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and radiation, the eldest of the four sisters, Angela—or Angel to family—was diagnosed.

“Two sisters pretty much at the same time, close in age, it was crazy,” Tricia recalls. Angela decided to undergo a hysterectomy, which revealed that the cancer that was attacking their family was estrogen-positive, making it all the more dangerous. Six years later, in 2007, cancer returned for Diane, this time diagnosed in the spine.

“We all converged on Diane’s house that night, waiting for the doctor to call,” Tricia says. “And he did; he told us that it was metastatic cancer on her spine. But in true fashion, Diane said she was going to fight this, and we all agreed we were going to fight this as a family.”

That’s exactly what they did. In fact, the family made the decision to use their tragedy to help others. In 2012, the sisters, alongside cousins, aunts and mothers, all headed to the University of Pennsylvania’s Exome Sequencing Division at the Abramson Cancer Center for testing. “My sisters and cousins all tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 cancer gene, which are the most popular, and we all tested negatively for that,” Pilone says. “It made the professinals think that it was entirely genetic, and if we could get the family together in one study that they would be able to identify a whole new gene that could eventually and hopefully help other people.”

Through it all, Tricia was a driving force. While caring for Diane, she helped organize a family reunion as a way to share the information the study had found.

“The team at Abramson issued us a letter, and they said that they felt there was a genetic mutation within our family, and so what we did was have a family reunion at my house in June of 2012. We got to make all of our cousins, second cousins [and] third cousins, aware, and we got to tell everyone that they should start their screenings at the age of 25, including mammograms and MRIs.” It was also a chance for the family to say goodbye.

“We lost Diane in September of 2012, but not without a big fight,” Tricia remembers. “And the amount of people that were impacted by Diane’s life—there were so many of them. She never felt sorry for herself, she never complained or cried. The strength, the hope, the will, the faith and the love—it was astounding.”

And Diane’s memory lives on, largely through the walking team Di’s Bosom Buddies. The group participates in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk every year, held this year at Cooper River Park in Pennsauken on Oct. 26. And Tricia and Angela continue to raise money to support genetic research that they are so closely connected to.

“There’s all this research and studies but you have to find the money to support them, so we’ve been raising money for the Abramson Cancer Center,” Tricia says. “All of the pain and suffering that my sisters, cousins, family have been through, it’s heart-wrenching. It was important for our family to be able to give something back scientifically, maybe help them identify this gene and help other people.

“For anyone whose lives are touched with cancer, it’s important to never give up hope. It’s amazing how much strength any individual actually holds. You as an individual don’t realize the strength you hold until you’re faced with a difficult situation. I’ve seen that in Angel and Diane, and the recognition for that spirit is so important. Any contribution, be it financial or emotional, to be part of someone’s support group is incredibly helpful.”

Heather Hirst
Glassboro’s Heather Hirst will be the first to tell you that breast cancer is a difficult road. Hirst is currently metastatic, having been diagnosed in January of 2010.

“It’s like living your life on a roller coaster that’s off the tracks,” Hirst explains. “It’s hard for me in October, especially because I’m metastatic, to see everything shrunk down into one month. Because it’s 365 days a year for me. It’s a scary process, but as with anything I think you have to embrace it. You have to be honest with yourself and say ‘You have to do what you have to do.’”

For Hirst, the personal victories come from the support of her family and friends. She and her husband of 23 years, Jim, recently renewed their vows in Hawaii; and she also spends her time bonding with her 23-year-old son. Then there’s the support she receives from various groups through the Kennedy Health System, which is located near her home and has been her provider since she started treatment.

“Support is important,” Hirst says. “We as women don’t want to be quick to accept help, but there’s a whole world out there and people want to help you.”

“The support groups cover the spectrum from diagnosis to survivor-ship,” says Louise Baca, administrator of Kennedy’s Cancer Program. “Women that are recently diagnosed come with a lot of questions, and women that are going through treatment can answer those questions that the women have. Many of these groups are very light, and light-hearted. It’s a way for women to figure out what’s ahead, and a way for women to share what they’ve gone through and help others.”

One of Hirst’s sources of pride comes from a support group that she participated in during Hurricane Sandy. “We realized that there were women down the Shore going through cancer,” Hirst says. “It’s hard enough going through it, then throw a hurricane in there. We did a drive and got together a huge group of supplies to get over to Gilda’s Club in Egg Harbor. We were able to support our sisters who needed our help through tragedy.”

She also helped build a memorial garden in Williamstown’s St. Mary’s School for a friend that lost her battle with cancer last year. And while Hirst says some support groups are too difficult to attend as her journey progresses, her strength is unfaltering. “I think that as long as you acknowledge that it’s going to be hard, and that you have to pick yourself up, and say you’re going to fight, it’s not a death sentence.”

Valery Dever
Cancer isn’t new to Valery Dever of Blackwood. In fact, it’s followed her through most of her life. Dever was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma when she was 18 years old, a rare but vicious bone cancer. She fought and overcame the disease, but when she felt a lump in the shower at age 32 the memories and fears returned.

“It was pretty devastating,” says Dever of her 2013 breast cancer diagnosis. “The first diagnosis didn’t really bother me that much. I was still a kid and I felt like I was indestructible. This time it hit a lot harder: I knew I could die, and I knew how hard it was.”

For most facing breast cancer, it’s a new experience. But facing the disease again meant revisiting the pain, fear and stress that Dever had experienced less than 15 years ago. “Before, I said I would never do chemo again, and when they told me I had to do it again I lost it. The mental part of it is the hardest part.”

Because of her past history, doctors had to devise a whole new system of treatment, because her past chemotherapy put a strain on her body that might damage her body beyond repair during round two. She also didn’t qualify for reconstructive surgery after her double mastectomy, because the Ewing’s sarcoma resulted in the loss of her ribs on the left side. For Dever’s sister Laura Braddock, it was one hurt on top of another.

“She said that she would stand in the mirror and not recognize herself,” says Braddock. “She would text me and she would be so upset and there was nothing I could do. It was my sister, and all I wanted to do was take that away from her.”

Then, in the midst of the madness, Dever and her family received even more bad news: Her mother, Jackie Braddock, also had breast cancer. This led to a series of genetic tests which revealed that both sisters and mother carried the BRCA2 gene.

Both mother and daughter, with younger sister Laura in tow, underwent chemotherapy—with Jackie also going through radiation—and voluntary salpingectomies to remove their Fallopian tubes. And the pair even had the opportunity to finish chemotherapy on the same day, side by side.

For Dever, it was a chance to help her mother in a way most people would never imagine. “I think it was good for her, because I already knew what to expect. When I found my lump she wanted to know how I knew,” says Dever. “And then she went and checked herself and found one. She could ask me questions and I could help her through it.”

Dever’s final surgery was on July 24, and life is slowly getting back to normal for the family. “I started exercising again and going out to some of my regular places and getting out,” she says. “It feels good to be yourself again, because the treatments and the surgeries took that away. And you start to feel pretty again, when your hair starts to grow back and your eyelashes start to grow back. It’s hard to feel pretty when you’re bald and boob-less.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 8 (October, 2014).
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