A/N: 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and it is one of the leading causes of cancer among women. I was so humbled to interview three extraordinary survivors for the October issue of BusinessWoman’s Magazine‘s insert. Below are their stories:
Sherry Smith-Weber couldn’t wait to get her two “monstrosities” off her chest so that she could attend the opera on time.
After years of being very large breasted, the 56-year-old opera aficionado opted to get a bilateral mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. Fresh out of chemotherapy since May and now taking tamoxifen, Smith-Weber is glad to have followed her instinct.
“The doctor said that I would have had as good a prognosis if I had the lumpectomy, but I was a triple B size. I’d always wanted a reduction, but I’d never do cosmetic surgery,” said the Hummelstown resident. “I always said that if I need to have any type of breast surgery, they were both going, and there would be no reconstruction either. I was very set on what I wanted.”
Diagnosed in December 2011, she discovered a lump during a self-exam. In the past, Smith-Weber has had four negative biopsies, but she knew that something was wrong.
Time was of the essence as doctors at Penn State Hershey Medical Center performed the mastectomy in late January. She thought the cancer would put a damper on her opera schedule, but the surgery was such a success that by late February, Smith-Weber attended the last concert of Wagner’s Rain Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan.
“The nurse at the Breast Center said they put on the front of my chart, ‘Get her to the opera on time,’” she said. “After having invested 18 hours of opera, I was not going to miss the last one.”
One of the hardest parts in her recovery was feeling tired at times, but Smith-Weber is thankful for the love and support of her husband of 32 years and their daughters.
“I made it through, but it was hard,” she said. “But it does come to an end.”
Mom’s the Word
When 36-year-old Maggie Pfitzenmaier discovered she had cancer, she quickly focused on one thing: being a mom.
In 2010, Pfitzenmaier, of Lancaster, was six months pregnant with her third child when she developed breast cancer. Her priority was putting her unborn son’s needs first.
“We chose to do the lumpectomy first and proceed with the other treatments after I had the baby because I wanted to make sure that he was healthy first,” said Pfitzenmaier. “I’m a mom so my priority was to make sure (my kids) were fine so I could get through it as best as I could.”
The tumor was located near Pfitzenmaier’s heart. After the lumpectomy, she started chemotherapy when her youngest son Trent was five weeks old. By September 2011, doctors at Penn State Hershey Medical Center performed a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery.
According to WebMD.com, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer for pregnant women in their mid-30s. Though pregnancy doesn’t cause breast cancer, the hormonal changes in the body during pregnancy can augment the tumor growth. In Pfitzenmaier’s case, the cancer was non-hormonal, meaning there was no increase in her hormones.
Physically, Pfitzenmaier’s mastectomy proved grueling.
“Mastectomy was hard because I couldn’t pick up my kids. I had to be careful like I couldn’t even get a dish out of the cabinet,” she said
With the constant support of her loved ones, Pfitzenmaier, who has participated in the Tougher Mudder race since her surgery, said cancer has made her stronger and credits her daughter Lily, 8, for making her see the positive of her recovery.
“She would come up with the most inspiring words out of anybody, which is very heartwarming,” Pfitzenmaier said. “She said, ‘OK, Mom, we are going to get through this. It’s OK, Mom, we are going to get a baby.’”
Living life to the fullest
The American Cancer Society reports that each year about 180,000 women are diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma, a common type of breast cancer.
Diane Funston was among those women. The news hit her like a ton of bricks, but with the unconditional support of loved ones and the passion to educate other women about the disease has made her live life to the fullest.
“Breast cancer has taught me so much: how to enjoy life and how much more I can enjoy life. There is a lot of life still out there for me,” she said. “I’ve learned that I can help another person through their journey from diagnosis through treatment and even to the end of their journey.”
Funston’s journey began in October 1996 when she was diagnosed at age 42. Her emotions initially delved into dread and terror.
“I couldn’t think straight. My thoughts were all about dying. I had no risk factors,” she said. “I had a thousand questions, but was afraid to ask even one of them. I wanted to disappear or turn back time.”
Funston underwent a lumpectomy with axillary dissection followed by a mastectomy. Navigating through her chemotherapy treatments were difficult because it made her ill and unbearable to work.
She found encouragement and empathy through a support group. Her family and friends were also very present in her recovery.
“They cooked and made meals for me. They stayed with me after my surgeries and treatments so I wouldn’t be alone,” she said. “They were everything to me and so much more.”
Funston urges newly-diagnosed women to never give up on their fight.
“Facing breast cancer involves fear, distress, courage, and hope. Armed with knowledge, a positive attitude, and the will to survive, we can prevail, overcome and even triumph,” she said. “We are in this together.”