"We Fought Back Against Breast Cancer!"
Six inspiring women share the stories of how their battles made them stronger and wiser.
"I was determined to treat my cancer my way."—Lynette Bisconti, 43
Lynette was overjoyed late in 1997 when she learned she was pregnant. But a month later that happiness turned to heartache. After having surgery to remove what was presumed to be a benign cyst on her left breast, she was told she had cancer. "The doctors said that the hormones my body was producing would likely fuel the cancer, and that I had to terminate the pregnancy immediately to save my own life," she says. Lynette spent the next few days wrestling with the dilemma of what to do and at the same time began to experience bleeding that made her think she might be miscarrying. When she went in for an ultrasound, the obstetrician told her, "This little guy is hanging on."
Lynette's mind was made up in that moment. "My heart leapt," says Lynette. "I knew that no matter what, no matter how bad it got, my baby and I would get through this together."
Finding physicians who respected her decision. Three weeks after her diagnosis Lynette had a mastectomy. "The lab report was bad. I had an aggressive cancer that had spread to several lymph nodes. I was told that if I went ahead with chemotherapy, which was the next step, my baby might die or be brain damaged." Six other physicians she consulted said the same thing: She had to terminate her pregnancy and get into chemotherapy immediately. "I left every visit crying," she says.
After a truly agonizing first trimester, Lynette got a referral from a family friend that led her to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), in Zion, Illinois, which was 75 miles from her home in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. "At the CTCA I met doctors and medical personnel who treated me with respect and compassion."
Advice to Others
If you're not getting the answers you want, keep searching. While going to see more than six doctors may seem crazy, it might be necessary, says Lynette. She was not satisfied until she found a place that would treat her the way she wanted to be treated. She decided to go with fractionated-dose chemotherapy (smaller doses of chemo over a greater length of time), which was considered gentler for both her and her unborn baby. "They also allowed me to refuse antinausea medication and steroids, to avoid exposing my baby to those drugs," she says.
Life Goes On
Lynette gave birth to a healthy baby boy on August 31, 1998. "When I held Frankie for the first time, I just thought, We did it!" Frankie continues to thrive and Lynette has been in remission for eight years now.
"I realized I couldn't do it alone." —Sandi Saltzman, 51
When Sandi, a self-described "tremendous multitasker," was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in 2000 (a type of breast cancer that starts in the milk ducts) she told her daughters, who were then 14, 16, and 18, that breast cancer wasn't a big deal. "I didn't want to worry them," says the elementary school reading specialist from Dix Hills, New York. But the tactic backfired on her. While Sandi was recovering from her lumpectomy and then undergoing six months of debilitating chemotherapy, her daughters didn't understand why their mother wasn't up to taking them to the mall, doing the usual carpool, or cooking dinner. "One even said, 'What did you do all day?' when she found me sitting on the couch, just as I had been when she left for school that morning," says Sandi. "At the time I felt that my daughters were being insensitive, but I realize now that I had set them up. I think they were also scared of losing me, and they thought that if they didn't treat me with kid gloves, everything would be normal."
Asking for a little help. "It was tough for me to request assistance, even from my friends who called constantly. I had always been so self-sufficient. But toward the end of my chemo, when I couldn't fake it anymore, I realized that it's okay to feel vulnerable and that people really want to do things for you," says Sandi. "I would have gotten more understanding from my kids if I had been more open about what I was going through."
Advice to Others
Perform self-exams regularly. Sandi found the abnormal lump in her breast soon after her annual mammogram came back clean. Her mother also had breast cancer that was detected by a self-exam. "I hound my daughters to check themselves monthly. I also urge them to see their gynecologists every six months. If caught early, your chances of surviving cancer are so much better."
Life Goes On
Sandi, who is still cancer free after six years, is back to her multitasking ways. And her middle daughter, Rachel, a senior in college, spends her free time working on breast cancer fundraisers. "Rachel recently spearheaded an event for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation that raised $32,000," Sandi says proudly.
Diane Greene and Sisters
"We faced our fears." —(left to right) Laura McGowan, 50; Carol Wolkiewicz, 42; Linda Phaneuf, 51; Diane Greene, 47
Diane and her three sisters first learned about breast cancer when they were in their teens. Their mother and her brother and sister were diagnosed with the disease—all three died between the ages of 50 and 60. "We hoped the cause was environmental, not genetic," says Diane, the mom of two teenage boys in Plainview, New York. But in 1998, at the age of 38, Diane found a lump that turned out to be malignant. After a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, Diane underwent genetic testing, as did her three sisters. Three of the four tested positive for the mutated BRCA2 gene, indicating that they are 40% to 80% more likely to develop the disease than the average woman.
Deciding to have our breasts removed. Laura, a human resources recruiter assistant in Dix Hills, New York, with three boys, was the first sister to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy (the surgical removal of breast tissue beneath the skin and nipple of both breasts) soon after testing positive. A few months later, when Diane had an MRI, the radiologist saw some suspicious spots in her remaining breast that were too small to even biopsy. She went ahead with a prophylactic mastectomy. (The breast was cancer free.) Linda, 50, from Fresh Meadows, New York, who also has three sons, waited six years after testing positive to have a bilateral preventive mastectomy. "I had to have two biopsies (both were benign), two years in a row. That made the decision to have the surgery easy," she says.
Advice to Others
Be proactive. The sisters are thankful they took advantage of technology their parents' generation didn't have. "We all talked and thought about breast cancer for so many years," says Laura. "Having our breasts removed has given us much more peace of mind."
Life Goes On
The sisters go about their daily lives knowing that they've done all that they can. They're not totally in the clear because not all breast tissue can be surgically removed with a mastectomy. "You can't completely forget about it," Diane says. Instead of trying to put it out of her mind, Diane decided to help others by volunteering for a breast cancer hotline. "I was afraid I would just be reliving my experience again and again. But it turns out, I've found helping to be healing."
"By helping others I ended up helping myself." —Carol Lundin, 48
When Carol's sister died of breast cancer in 1991, it was a devastating blow. Carol, a teacher, didn't begin to heal until she embarked on a 3,000-mile cross-country breast cancer fundraiser bike trip in 2000. The experience motivated her to relocate from New Hampshire to Oregon and found the Cancer Community Renewal Project (which sponsors adventure-based retreats for breast cancer survivors) with a friend she met on the ride.
Not letting cancer beat me. Four years later Carol became one of the women she'd been helping: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I feared it would prevent me from continuing my work," she says. But a month after having a mastectomy and four days before starting chemo, she climbed 9,000-foot Mount St. Helens, in Washington.
Advice to Others
Talk positively to yourself. "On my worst days of chemo, I'd say, 'This is nothing compared to climbing a mountain.' Recently, as I pedaled uphill in the rain, I said, 'This is nothing compared to chemo.' The tough experiences we have can create a cycle of resilience."
Life Goes On
Cancer free for two years, Carol continues to help others. She now has her master's in social work. "There are few summits, literally or figuratively, I'm afraid to tackle," she says.