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Survival Stories

by Leslie Feldman

Breast cancer: There used to be such a stigma to those words. It wasn’t widely talked about, and many women unjustifiably suffered in silence as they waged a battle for their lives. But now, through years of education and awareness efforts, even the men of the NFL don pink, as the whole attitude has changed from fear to empowerment.

In honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with some local women who have faced their darkest days and come out stronger than ever thanks to the support of family and friends, proving that a breast cancer diagnosis is far from a death sentence—though still not far enough for some.

Jini Errichetti was diagnosed with stage IIIC invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer, in 2007 and had a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation at Cooper University Hospital. A wife, mother of two high school students, and a librarian at her local elementary school, Errichetti faced the disappointing 50-50 survival rate. “My husband was very supportive, but definitely not happy about the thought of being a single father,” says Errichetti, 53, of Cherry Hill. “He would get frustrated with me sometimes when I just didn’t feel well. I didn’t blame him. I got frustrated, too. Some days I would wake up and feel good and think it was going to be a good day—and then I would get sick.”

To get through this difficult time in her life, she prayed, meditated, and wrote in her journal. “I realized that I was going to have days that just suck and decided that I just had to allow myself to have that day or that hour, or whatever time I needed to get through. But then I wiped the tears and dragged myself out of bed.”

Her two daughters, Chelsea and Cheryl, reacted in their own ways, each helping strengthen Errichetti’s resolve. Cheryl, now 15, chose to protect her mother, keeping her disease a secret from those other than family and demanding that Errichetti wear a wig. Chelsea, who was 12 at the time, asked, “You’re not going to die, right?” At first, Errichetti didn’t know how to answer.

“I was afraid to promise something I didn’t know at the time,” she says. “She may have been in denial, but she never let the fact sink in that there was a chance of losing me. Her optimism through the whole process really carried with me during the treatment.”

The strength and independence of her family, along with her own personal will to survive, brought her through to the other side of her disease, which has far from silenced her. “Even now, I introduce myself to [my daughters’] teachers and make sure they know I am a survivor. Now, I am very proud of how they have taken on their own responsibility as daughters of a survivor.”

And the family has grown, too. Errichetti says Cheryl has broken her silence to become a support for other children of cancer survivors. “The entire family immediately participated in fundraising events such as Making Strides and Relay for Life for a few years. Cheryl and I will be speaking to a group of Girl Scouts and their mothers for the third year.”

Errichetti joined a cancer support group organized by Cooper, and attended lectures and events held through Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC). “It was sad to realize that some of the women did not have any support at home. Some husbands and kids expected the women to go on as usual. That is not possible. … I found myself immediately participating in walks and events sponsored by The American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen and I especially enjoy Yoga on the Steps organized by LBBC.”

Her work with the women in her support group led her to the River Sisters, a survivors’ dragon boat team that races intricate dragon boats, oversized canoes that are controlled by large teams. She was intrigued from the start and joined the team as soon as her reconstruction surgeries were complete.

“This is the best type of support group. We laugh as we paddle and the camaraderie is just fantastic. Learning to live the ‘new normal’ can be quite a challenge. You become part of a community you might not be ready for, but it is thrust upon you.”

Errichetti says it is hard to give advice for women as to what to tell their children. “I have to admit, I was disappointed about how little there was out there to help me with this. Very few books are available. Personally, I don’t believe in shielding children too much.“ Most importantly, she urges all women to do self-exams. “If I had, the cancer would not have been found so late. Thank God I had my yearly mammogram. If I had blown it off, I would not be here today.”

If there’s anything that Mary Manion has learned in her 56 years, it’s that each day is a miracle. Eleven years after being diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal carcinoma—the most common form of breast cancer—she stresses that she feels lucky to be here.

“I am one of the last ones standing,” Manion says of the women she met while in treatment. “I have learned of a friend who was diagnosed in the same timeframe as me and has a stage IV recurrence. All I know is I will lose her one day.”

But not without a fight. And not without her crossing off some more things on her bucket list, says Manion, of Medford. “You don’t stop. You live life while you can. And you never count anyone out till they are gone. And you just know there is hope for a better day.”

Manion, who teaches music along with computer technology to middle-schoolers in Mount Ephraim, had to take some time off during her initial treatments through the Virtua Fox Chase Cancer Program in Mount Holly, as the demanding effects of the classroom and hospital room were too much in the beginning. Her daughter was just 11 years old and in fifth grade at the time, watching as her mother had a lumpectomy and underwent chemotherapy for weeks, losing all of her hair in the process. Manion says her daughter took it hard. In the beginning, they went outside and literally yelled at trees, or sat in their bedroom and beat up pillows to let it out.

And it didn’t end there. After chemotherapy, Manion underwent 34 radiation treatments, followed by five years of hormonal therapy.

“The team of therapists and nurses that administer cancer treatments are special people who have amazing people skills to help get you through the process,” explains Manion. “Cancer is as much a mental disease as a physical one. So much is happening to you that your head is spinning.”

Memory problems were a major challenge for Manion, one that didn’t dissolve for several years. Then in 2005, she had to undergo a hysterectomy and oopherectomy that was related to her treatments. “So, full menopause happened.”

She recalls the support of her co-workers—who often brought meals over for the family—and one particular substitute who maintained her band program in her absence. Manion herself often visited her classroom, remaining very open with her students about what was going on and how she was progressing.

She also received support from a counseling program known as “Look Good, Feel Better” offered by the American Cancer Society. It’s those practical suggestions, such as hair and makeup tips, that can go a long way in making a woman feel a little more confident and ready to face the day. But mostly, the program helped her realize the reality of her situation. “It’s amazing how you can deny what is happening. I went back and forth between joking about treatments and crying. I think that things are too much to handle all at once and your brain only lets it in in pieces.”

Now officially a survivor, Manion is highly involved in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of Medford event. She’s had a team since 2002. “Working for the relay has been rewarding to channel my anger into helping others,” she says. “Relays are more than fundraising events; they are very much a support outlet for the community.”

And Manion doesn’t just look at herself as a survivor—she looks at her whole family as survivors. “I hope my daughter, who is now 22, is proud of me, and I want her to be able to live without the fear that she will get cancer. She is a survivor just like me. She went through it all with me. I want her to be able to avoid cancer and, likewise, her future children. I think about that a lot.”

When she first heard the news, she had the odd sensation of moving in slow motion.

At the age of 43, psychiatrist Janine Sobel, MD, was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage I, triple negative breast cancer. Though her initial reaction was an out-of-body experience, this only lasted a day or two before Sobel needed to spring into motion and line up her medical team, schedule tests, and rearrange her life to fit in her new reality. “I recall thinking that I might die within a few months as a result of this disease, and somehow coming to terms with that possibility,” says Sobel, now 57. “I hoped I could stay alive long enough to see my [daughter’s] Bat Mitzvah the following year. What helped me through this time were the optimistic attitudes of family and friends and also having a pre-existing spiritual and religious life at my synagogue.”

Sobel, who has been seeing patients for 26 years in her private practice in Voorhees, soon underwent a lumpectomy and lymph node sampling, then four rounds of chemotherapy during the next three months, and finally, seven weeks of radiation.

Though more than a decade has passed, Sobel is cautiously optimistic about her now cancer-free status. “Thankfully, I have been cancer-free since, but you are never free of the nagging question of ‘When will it come back?’ even 14 years later.”

At the time of her diagnosis, Sobel’s two daughters were 11 and 13. Upon receiving the results of her biopsy, she and her husband sat down with them, explained that it was breast cancer and that it was curable. “We told them that I would be having more surgery and treatments over the next year, and that the medicine might make me feel sicker and cause my hair to fall out, but it would grow back and the odds were excellent that I would be fine in the end. It was important to me as a mother to be honest with them about what was going on, but to keep it simple and appropriately optimistic. Kids can sense when something is wrong. Fortunately, my daughters listened to us and continued about their lives in a pretty normal fashion.”

Now that her children are adults, Sobel reminds them that despite genetic testing being negative, doctors still recommend that they start having mammograms at age 30 in order to catch early signs of breast cancer. “Ignoring a lump and avoiding screenings won’t magically make cancers go away, it just makes them harder to treat,” she says.

If diagnosed, she suggests “surrounding yourself with positive people, and reaching out to your medical team and other survivors when you have questions about what is happening to you. Bring a family member or friend to be an advocate at your appointments—even if you yourself are a physician.”

There are contradicting recommendations from health organizations as to whether to begin yearly mammograms at age 40 or later—which makes you wonder when you look at the case of Kara Guzzetti, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 29 years old.

Finding out she had breast cancer at such a young age was a very surreal experience for this West Deptford native, who at the time—December of 2009—was working at a law firm in Haddon Heights. She had only been admitted to practice law since 2007, so as a new attorney, one of her first fears was that her career could suffer.

But that fear didn’t last long. “The firm was small and my boss’ wife had previously had breast cancer, so they were very supportive and understanding to me. I was fortunate to be able to receive a full salary and work a part-time schedule of about 25 hours per week throughout my entire treatment.”

For Guzzetti, her bout began during what would have otherwise been a typical morning routine—while eating breakfast and watching CNN. Strangely enough, the news story was about mammograms and whether health insurance should cover them prior to the age of 50. The story inspired her to do a self-exam, but finding a large lump in her right breast was the last thing she expected.

A mammogram confirmed that she needed to get an immediate biopsy, after which it was determined she had stage IIIA invasive ductal carcinoma and it had spread to her lymph nodes.

Guzzetti received treatment at the University of Pennsylvania and Cooper University Hospital, which involved a single mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, chemotherapy and radiation. Because she wanted to have children someday, she underwent fertility preservation prior to starting chemo. She is now on her third year of taking tamoxifen, which blocks the actions of estrogen, since her cancer was estrogen positive (meaning estrogen makes the cancer grow).

“You always hear about people experiencing tragedy or adversity of some sort, whether it’s cancer or a devastating loss of some sort, but you never think it will happen to you until it does,” says Guzzetti, now 32. “I was fortunate to be living with my parents at the time, who were very supportive and helpful in getting me through all of my treatments. I could not have gotten through treatments without my mom, who has since passed away.”

To help her through the difficult time, Guzzetti joined the Young Survival Coalition group, which was instrumental in helping her get through treatments. “Friends and family are of course supportive and will do anything to help you during such a time, but there is nothing like speaking with other women who are going through the same or similar experience.”

The group didn’t just help her get through treatments, it helped her deal with the emotional effects of cancer post treatment, she says. “You develop a connection with women who understand what you are going through and forge a bond that no one else can quite understand.”

Guzzetti’s advice for women going through cancer is to let themselves feel grateful, and not guilty, for having survived the disease when not everyone does.

“An experience like this is always good to remind you want is important in life,” Guzzetti remarks. “Relationships are important, treating people with kindness and respect are important, closeness with family is important. I realize that I do not want to spend my life working but I want to enjoy it. I hope to remain cancer free for a long time. I hope to get married some day and find someone who accepts me, scars and all.”

Cherry Hill’s Leila Kotler Joffe has learned many life lessons from having beaten breast cancer, but what she values the most now is her new outlook on the life she has built with her husband and two teenage boys. “I am so happy to be a part of every milestone my children reach. I see things in a much brighter way.”

Joffe, now 44, was diagnosed at the age of 37. She had a baseline mammogram at 35 and was told it was normal. About six months later, during a self-exam, she felt a pea-size lump. Eventually, that small lump turned out to be stage II breast cancer.

Joffe knew she had to keep it together as best she could for her children, despite not feeling well some days. “I never saw myself as sick,” she says. “I would get dressed, put my wig and makeup on, put a smile on my face and laugh. This was my way of coping and what I had to do for my family.”

Luckily, her early detection and team of physicians helped her with everything from a biopsy to the double mastectomy and treatments that lasted for a year, giving her the chance to survive. “I owe my life to Dr. Kathleen Greatrex at Lourdes who did my biopsy and the wonderful doctors and staff at Einstein Medical Center and University of Pennsylvania Hospital.”

During the past seven years, Joffe has fought back against the cancer that threatened her future through her volunteer work for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Abramson Cancer Center. “I want to give back any way I can and help those that are going through what I did seven years ago. I enjoy visiting patients at the hospital and giving lectures. If my story can help someone else, it is all worth it.”

And with her diagnosis now a thing of the past, Joffe has learned to appreciate every day and not take anything for granted. “I am grateful for my family ... who gave me the encouragement to continue on. I still have my parents and several of my grandparents here with me and I feel blessed.”

Joffe has closed one chapter of her life and has began writing the rest of the story since her diagnosis, including her self-published picture book to her sons called Dear Boys. She says it serves almost as a letter that expresses her love, passion, values and personal thoughts to pass on to her children and to future generations.

“I tell other women who have been diagnosed with cancer that this is just one chapter of their life, but it certainly doesn’t define their life.”

A stage IV breast cancer survivor, Karen Schaefer was diagnosed in 2006 and found out the cancer had spread to her liver. After a successful battle thanks to a year of chemotherapy along with Herceptin—a specific drug used for cancer that has spread through the body—she was cancer free.

However, in 2007, Schaefer began experiencing changes in her eyesight, only to find that she tumors that had developed on her brain from her initial diagnosis. She had full brain radiation, a craniotomy and Gamma Knife surgery five times at Cooper University Hospital.

“As of today, I am able to say I am cancer free,” says Schaefer, 46, of Sicklerville. “I work part time as a pediatric nurse at Cooper Hospital, and am blessed to have a beautiful husband and two beautiful children that have endured this rocky journey with me all the way.”

Schaefer was afraid to say too much to the kids. They were only 9 and 12 at the time. “I believe in trying to keep an open door policy with my children. I tried to have a balance of telling them the truth without scaring them. I told them I was going to lose my hair and didn’t know if I was going to do all the same activities that I did before with them. I made it my goal for them and myself that I would try my hardest to keep our lives as normal as it was before. That was very difficult to do at times, but we grew as a family because of it.”

With a now-18-year-old son, Ryan, and 16-year-old daughter, Morgan, Schaefer admits it was hard to be the patient when she was used to being the caregiver. And she also worried about the things she would later realize weren’t important in the end, such as the fear of losing her hair. “I was so frightened about everything,” she says. “I felt I was literally paralyzed with fear. I thought I was going to die.”

But during her first day of chemo, she says she was “blessed with a divine intervention” when she sat down next to a young girl and another woman, both sharing her name. “I felt this was God reassuring me that everything was going to be OK.” They formed their own little support group, staying in touch over the years and sharing all their ups and downs and news about their families. “We support each other through our tests results or any problems we are having in our lives. Only they can truly understand what you are feeling.”

Schaefer’s hopes for the future would be that she will be able to see her children get married and have their own kids. “I want to be able to retire and go places and do things with my husband. While I am on this earth, I am here to help others in any way I can. This diagnosis has made me more determined to embrace this goal.”

For women still in the fight against breast cancer, sometimes focus is hard to find. For Kelly McGann, she has found strength in honesty, after learning this June that she had an aggressive form of invasive ductal carcinoma (HER2+).

The tumor found in her left breast was approximately 5 cm and had spread to one of her lymph nodes. Given that the tumor was significant in size and close to her chest wall, her first course of treatment was chemotherapy in order to reduce the tumor size in hopes for a successful surgery. Her pre-surgery staging was considered stage III.

“Waiting for the official results to confirm what everyone had pretty much told me was cancer was an excruciatingly difficult week. In hindsight, I think the candor and directness of everyone helped me cope and focus more on action and information rather than wallow in my sorrow,” explains McGann, 40, of Riverton.

McGann, a marketing director for an engineering and planning firm in Center City, says she feels fortunate to work for a company that is almost like family, and that supports her through her ongoing treatment at the Cooper Cancer Institute in both the Voorhees and Willingboro locations. “I feel fortunate to have found such great care locally. I did my homework and consulted other doctors in other networks, but I had a feeling of instant confidence after meeting with my Cooper doctors,” she says. “(My job) lets me work as I feel up to it in between chemotherapy treatments. I have six rounds of chemo every three weeks, so I am able to work for about a week and half in between each round. Anyone who knows me knows I am very career-driven, so this change in my work structure has been a huge adjustment for me. This amazing flexibility has allowed me to stay engaged during important transitions at work but also gives me the time I need to focus on me and getting healthy again.”

As a full-time working mom with 3-year-old twins and a husband, life to this point had always been full and fast-paced. It’s even more fast-paced for her now that there are tests and appointments to contend with on a regular basis.

“My twins, although very young, are very present and aware to what changes are going on with me. My daughter is especially affected by my hair loss, my wig, and my lack of energy. I have struggled, and continue to struggle with, how to talk about my breast cancer with my kids. I don’t want them to think of mommy as being sick and I have never used the word cancer, not yet. I keep trying to reassure them that what they see is only temporary and mommy is going to be just fine again very soon. As I have said from the very beginning, it is not an option for me not to be fine.”

McCann’s hope is that by the time her children are young adults, a cure for breast cancer will be found. “Knowing (they are) at greater risk, I pray that (they) will not have to endure anything like this. Mammograms are so important, as are breast self-exams.”

McCann, by nature, is a very private person. After being diagnosed, it seemed too important to keep quiet about. “Cancer takes a huge physical and emotional toll, and by being more open about the emotional side, it helps me offset the physical side effects a little bit easier. It has been very healing for me to let others in. I think when people are reluctant to talk about their cancer and their feelings, it makes it more difficult for others to help you.”

She’s known as Silverfox Cindy to her friends, for her “hair that came in exactly as it went out,” and now Cindy Brining looks at life through rose-colored glasses—firmly believing it is important to get the most out of each day.

A self-exam led Brining, of Burlington, to the doctor’s office in 2010, after finding a lump mere days after having a scheduled mammogram. Then on Christmas Eve at the age of 48, she was diagnosed with stage II triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of cancer that, although responsive to chemotherapy, is more likely than other types to recur.

Brining underwent treatment and surgery through Virtua’s Fox Chase Cancer Program, only to be followed by 16 dense dose chemotherapy treatments during the course of five months, and then a double mastectomy and implants. The treatment side effects were unimaginable, she says. “I kept thinking, ‘this will pass and it’s temporary.’”

Luckily, she had an army of support in her coworkers, family and friends (dubbed the foxy soldiers), and she didn’t go to a single appointment alone. Brining works as an operations manager for a local company that she says “puts a high value on its team and was benevolent” during her treatment. Everyone recognized the importance of accepting her “new normal” energy and capabilities, she says, adding she had to go on short-term disability for eight weeks following her double mastectomy. But she certainly didn’t go hungry, as her colleagues brought her meals through the whole experience.

When it comes to family, Brining had her husband, Rob, and 19-year-old son, Daniel, at her side, along with eight siblings who she says each handled the diagnosis differently—some calling daily, some sending cards, and others not really talking at all. But Brining knows and accepts from her own experience with her father’s lost battle to prostate cancer that everyone has his or her own way of coping and that “there is no right and wrong in how people deal with illness.”

Besides relying on family and friends, Brining participated in the Chicks Alive support group at Virtua. She also used the “Cindy Tracker,” created by a friend, to chart her daily emotions. This forced her to tune in to her feelings and needs, and it allowed her to see the progress she made over time.

Going through treatments and surgery with an overwhelming number of supporters by her side opened Brining’s eyes to the compassion of others. She admits that at first, she found it hard to allow people to become involved in her situation, but she ultimately did and now hopes “that everyone has soldiers to lean on and hold them when they can’t do it themselves.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 8 (October, 2012).
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