Stories of Surviving and Thriving

PJ Harden - North Grosvenordale, CT

Mid-way through February 2016, I had my annual mammogram. Three days later an ultrasound, and three days later a biopsy. That was a Monday; by Wednesday I knew that I had a 0.9 cm cancerous tumor in my left breast. Within a month, I had a partial mastectomy, and one, yes one, sentinel lymph node removed.Thank god it was clean! Two small lumps were removed, the original, and an 0.8 cm tumor that had bridged from the first one. The pathologist found it. My perimeters were clean and all 3 of my Her-Ceptors were doing their job. Because of my family history with cancer, particularly breast cancer, we decided to do some genetic testing. I had already had the BRCA1 and 2 several years before, and they had come back negative. So we decided to have the Oncogene test and I came back VERY HIGH Medium to get this cancer in the next 10 years. Because of that info we had the Mammaprint gene test done, which is more definitive, and I came back very high, meaning I had a high chance of getting this cancer again in the next 5 years! So, with everything that did go “right” for me, it was determined that I receive chemotherapy: 4 cycles, Taxol and Cytoxan, every 3 weeks. I have just finished my 3rd cycle with one more to go. I will then have to receive 4-8 weeks of radiation, 5 days a week.

As scary as it was at the beginning, and as sick as I get after chemo, and as bald as I am right now, I know that I am one of the LUCKIEST, most fortunate, and grateful breast cancer patients there is! This story would be very different if I didn’t get annual mammograms. Early detection and research are the key! Please consider donating to this very worthy cause. It WILL save lives.

I am PJ Harden and I will survive breast cancer! 

Gail Richey - Cromwell, CT

On Friday, March 13th, I had my annual OBGYN visit which, of course, included a mammogram. We heard the words “it’s cancer” 5 days later, but in reality, we knew on that first day. The mammogram image showed enough along with radiologist reading to be told “it doesn’t look good”.

Yes, I have a family history that would scare anyone. My mother passed away 34 years ago from breast cancer and my sister 14 years ago.

I am very confident in my outcome, however, because I have witnessed the advancements made in cancer research. I am absolutely positive my mother would have survived today and my sister had a better chance of living longer. The cancer is genetic in our family and aggressive. By the time my sister Sharon was diagnosed, it was Stage IV and she was given 2 weeks to 2 months to live.

There were no lumps or bumps detected by me prior to my annual nor did my doctor find anything. It was a typical visit up until the mammogram. We thought this must be early because there was nothing there 6 months ago and the mammogram and ultrasound appeared to show one tumor and nothing in the lymph nodes.

After surgery, it was a different scenario. There were 3 tumors in the left breast and 9 lymph nodes positive for cancer with a total of 15 removed. It is Stage III, grade 3 cancer. I thank god every day for that mammogram because while Stage III sounds scary, it did not spread beyond the lymph nodes sparing me from being Stage IV, terminal.

I am absolutely positive I will survive and grateful for causes like Susan G. Komen that help raise money to support/fund the advancements we see today. I look forward to the cure that will save my children and my grandchildren. 

Shilpa Thakur- Hartford, CT

A mammogram saved my life…

On May 27, 2016, at the age of 41, I had my second screening mammogram ever. I strolled in for the test without a care in the world. I was preoccupied with planning how we would celebrate my husband’s birthday later that day. I wasn’t even alarmed when I got called back for additional views. I had to do this the year prior, “no big deal” I thought. It was only after I was told I needed a biopsy, as there was a subtle change on the mammogram that I began to worry. But again I assuaged my fears by repeating the mantra “80% of these are normal”. I was expecting to get a clear bill of health.

That was not meant to be.  I was shocked to learn that I had early stage breast cancer. I have no family history, no risk factors other than having dense breasts, and was feeling like I was in the best shape of my life.  The first biopsy showed ductal carcinoma in situ (stage 0).  I then had an MRI which showed more abnormality and yet another biopsy was done. This again showed DCIS but also revealed an area of micro-invasion. It was tiny (<1mm to be exact) but it meant the cancer was on the move. The area of involvement was too large for a lumpectomy. I was told I needed a mastectomy. I sank to my knees and sobbed.  It was not news that I, as a mother of 2 young girls, wife of a radiologist, and physician myself, was prepared to hear.

The day prior to this life changing mammogram, I had seen my doctor. We talked about the fact that given my age and lack of risk factors, the U.S. Preventive Task Force guidelines indicate that I could get screening mammograms every other year as my mammogram was normal the year before. While all of this was true, we also talked about the fact that several other medical organizations all encourage women at my age to get screening mammograms every year starting at the age of 40. I told myself, “Go to the mammogram tomorrow. If it’s normal, maybe you can consider skipping the following year”. I don’t know if it was divine intervention, intuition, or dumb luck. But I was diagnosed early and that has made all the difference.

The most difficult part of this journey was telling my bright eyed daughters about my diagnosis. They were 9 and 6 years old at the time. My husband and I felt strongly that we needed to be truthful, but we did not want to overwhelm them. We told them as plainly as we could. The little one asked me, “Mom, what’s cancer?” and we explained that all the cells in our body have rules. Cancer cells are the ones that don’t follow the rules. My older one sat quietly and barely spoke. When I tucked her into bed at night, the questions began. “Will it come back? Will you die? Will the surgery hurt? Are you scared? Can I get breast cancer?” Answering these questions was the hardest thing I have ever had to do but also the most important.

My husband and I did our research and I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy with direct to implant reconstruction at the end of July. Again luck was on my side, and my lymph nodes were negative for cancer which meant no chemotherapy! Without much breast tissue, I won’t need another mammogram but will forever be grateful for following my gut and getting annual screenings when I did.  I shudder to think what would have been found if I had postponed them. I can truthfully say that a mammogram saved my life.

As the outward scars begin to fade and our lives appear to have returned to normal, our family appreciates how precious health truly is. We unexpectedly battled breast cancer but consider ourselves fortunate in so many ways. I share our story because if it could inspire just one more person to get their annual screening mammogram then something good has come out of all this.

Betsy Daniels- Woodbury, CT

The first time Betsy Daniels ran the Race for the Cure, she did so because she wanted a nice flat running course to challenge herself as a runner. It was 2001 and Betsy recalls being taken aback by the enormous amount of emotion she could feel in the air – the survivors and co-survivors and all the people there because breast cancer had touched their lives in some way, shape or form. “I felt almost uncomfortable because I was there purely for the competitive nature of a race,” Betsy says, adding that she didn’t know anyone with breast cancer then.

However, the next time Betsy came to Bushnell Park for the Komen Connecticut Race for the Cure in June of 2007, her experience was a whole lot different — she wore pink and ran the 5k as a survivor. Betsy was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 2007 at the age of 46.

“The race changed for me – it wasn’t about how fast I could go,” she says.” It was now about that I could.” Betsy recalls some signs in front of her that particular year that, now looking back on it all, could have signaled something ahead. One, in particular, was talking to a family friend who had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer. “She told me that she had shingles and had a questionable mammogram just before getting her breast cancer diagnosis,” Betsy says. “I remember that day putting it in the back of my mind since I had had those two things too,” Betsy recalls adding that she developed shingles in April of 2006 and had previously had a questionable mammogram.

Even though she was due for a mammogram in October 2006, her busy work schedule as an occupational therapist precluded her from making the appointment then. But in December when a patient had canceled with her, she decided to call for her mammogram. The imaging center was able to squeeze her in the next day. This eased her mind she recalls because she says she had been unable to shake a “nagging feeling” she had for some time.

Even though she received a call back from the imaging center that time, she didn’t think much of it – with her dense breast tissue a call back was normal for her. When the radiologist told her that she would need the biopsy, she realized this was not the same as before. But even then, Betsy wasn’t truly alarmed.

It was after the biopsy during a quick stop into a store that really knocked her for a loop. “I was looking for some workout clothes at TJ Maxx and the only one left on the rack had a pink ribbon on it,” she recalls. “I said ‘uh,oh’ and immediately walked away.” However, Betsy decided to embrace the signs before her and went back and bought the shirt. “I made the decision that I was not going to be afraid of a pink ribbon.”

The call from her doctor a few days later revealed that Betsy had ductal carcinoma in situ. She was referred to Southbury surgeon Dr. Beth Sieling. “That was the time I felt the most confident that everything would be fine,” Betsy recalls. “It was her manner. She was awesome and together we were armed and ready to kick some butt!”

The lumpectomy produced clean margins and Betsy, who decided that she would not let cancer get in the way of her life, took the weekend to recuperate and showed up ready for work on Monday. “Being at work was therapeutic for me,” she recalls. Shortly thereafter, she began a seven-week course of radiation therapy. During that time Betsy also learned that a skin cancer of her toe had recurred and that would also need radiation. “They did my breast then swung me around for my toe!” she laughs.

A good dose of humor along with some acupuncture treatments helped Betsy relax during the radiation process. “I had read that acupuncture lessened the effects and warded off the fatigue of radiation,” she says. “It made me feel like I was doing something that was right for me.”

Betsy decided to run the Race for the Cure again and has been each year since her diagnosis. “I really do look at it as a birthday gift to myself,” she explains. The race is held in June, the month of her birthday, so she asks her friends and family to walk, run or donate in lieu of a present.  Betsy, who is a triplet, knows that breast cancer strikes even without a family history and raises money and runs for all the women in her life.

She captains team Bella Donna — Italian for beautiful woman — in sincere thanks to Dr. Sieling and her staff for all the wonderful things they do for their breast cancer patients and their families.

Betsy has decided to take on a role as advocate instead of a survivor. “You can do everything right but breast cancer has no boundaries,” Betsy says, adding that even though she exercised and ate right, she still shouldn’t have been surprised by the diagnosis. “But one thing you can control is how you educate people that might propel them to go for their annual check-up.” She says the best thing she can do is to tell people that early detection is the key to survival and to waylay people’s fear about cancer. Not every cancer is diagnosed at stage 2 or 3, she says, adding that some cancers — like hers — are caught early and “you never have to miss a day of work.”

Betsy was put on Tamoxifen because her cancer was estrogen receptive and she continues her exercise regime. She is in training for her first triathlon this summer and proudly rides her bright pink bike. “My competitive streak is still there,” she says. “But breast cancer has made me appreciate the sport. I can do this because I feel great and I can appreciate looking at things as they go by. I am not competing against myself anymore. Instead, I am celebrating myself.”

Betsy Daniels lives in Woodbury, CT with her family and is a co-founder of a local Facebook group dedicated to women’s health, fitness and friends. She is also a member of a local breast cancer support group at the Harold Leever Cancer Center and participates in many races, walks, and events to fight cancer.

Written by Maria Duncan of Woodbury, CT, freelance writer and 12-year breast cancer survivor. 

Adrianne Flower- Woodstock, VT

The journey began about a year ago. Or should I say it’s a fear that I’ve lived with since my Daddy died from cancer almost 25 years ago – half my own lifetime ago. Through the years, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a sister succumbed to this dreadful disease. At 50, one begins to feel their own mortality; time fleeting; there are so many things still left to experience. At home when everyone is sleeping, you think and think a lot. Next to you in bed, the most loving husband – across the hallway in her bedroom, the most amazing daughter. Knowing these two humans live for your love, your support, your care – you take the bull by the horns and do what you need to do to trick that unknown destiny.

I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene last August, just before our annual trip to York, Maine. Our family calls that week “the light at the end of the tunnel.” The ocean: always tranquil and mesmerizing – a no-stress week for us all. My father loved the ocean, and this is where I go to talk with him. I had some choices to make, and I always think more clearly near the water.

Meetings with geneticists, oncologists, radiologists, and surgeons filled my beautiful Vermont fall days. I learned quickly what my genetic test concluded: 87% chance of either or both breast and ovarian cancer. The knowledge of my skilled team at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center paved the path that I was to embark on. I questioned where this mutation could have originated. Perhaps it began thousands of years ago in my ancestors’ little Greek village? How many people could have been saved today? I’ve always marveled at the genetic traits I have inherited – morals, strong work ethic, love of family, and the will of a Greek goddess. Now, I have added another trait to my repertoire: BRCA1 positive.

The empowerment came pretty much overnight. I went to bed weepy, sad, confused and awakened on a Saturday empowered and ready. A double bilateral mastectomy scheduled for January 2017; followed by a complete hysterectomy in February. This Greek goddess was quickly evolving into a warrior. It was going to be the year of my life!

The love has always been there and always will be. I began to realize its unbelievable power when I returned home after my first surgery. At times, unbearable pain shook my soul. Four drains needing attention twice a day by a man who became my nurse, and whose unconditional love came to the forefront more than ever. Sleeping in a sitting position and when awake, feeling content watching “Gilmore Girls” marathons, the days became sweeter as time went on. My daughter, fearing what she may face one day, always by my side with a kiss on the forehead, giving me reinforcement, and most of all, being proud of me. Two surgeries became life-saving necessities. I did it!

Today, I am fearless, unrivaled, and healthy. On July 22, Team Grateful – my posse of family, friends, and colleagues participated in the 5K walk in Manchester, Vermont. I have been given a second chance and will use it wisely to empower and take the fear out the unknown. I will also do it with all the love I can muster – from the copious amounts I have in my beautiful life.

Be Bold, Be Fearless, Be More!