Breast Cancer Survival Guide, Part 3: Life, Interrupted
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Breast Cancer Survival Guide, Part 3: Life, Interrupted

A breast cancer diagnosis never comes at a good time, but for some women the timing -- at the start of a new relationship, during a pregnancy, right after a promotion -- couldn t be more terrifying.

"I had just fallen in love..."

Natasha Toro, a kindergarten teacher in New York City, has known since she was little that getting married and having children were her biggest life goals. At 34 she had a job she loved and had just started dating Gilbert Chrisphonte, an old friend of her kid brother. Gilbert, now 36, an account executive at a medical staffing agency, already had three children by previous marriages. To Natasha he seemed like more of a party guy -- smart but not that deep. She didn't really see him as husband material but enjoyed his company enough to keep dating him.

Then, during Christmas break -- she'd been dating Gilbert for six months -- Natasha did her regular breast self-exam, just as she had faithfully done ever since she'd felt a hard mass in her left breast 10 years earlier. She'd had it checked then and the results were negative. Now she felt a lump again, even harder and bigger. She went for a mammogram and ultrasound as soon as possible, on January 4, 2005, then a core biopsy the next day. Two days later, when she called for biopsy results, she heard that cancer cells had been found.

All she remembers hearing is the word "cancer." First she was incredulous. "There's no way I'm sick. It doesn't happen in my family," she remembers thinking. Then she got sad -- she already knew from her previous breast cancer scare that treatments like chemotherapy could end her chances of having a baby. Friends stayed with her during the day. Later, Gilbert came over.

"Get dressed," he told her.
"Why?" she asked.
"We're going to go out," he said.

And that was the evening their relationship began to change. "Prior to this I only saw the fun side of him. But we never really talked about meaningful things."

Now they had a lot to talk about. The tumor was big enough that the doctors suggested chemo first in hopes of shrinking it before surgery. Natasha was surprised by how much Gilbert was able to help her sort out her feelings and handle her fears. Still, she tried to give him an out: "You didn't sign up for this," she told him. "It's okay to end it."

But he wouldn't. And when Natasha decided to have embryos frozen to give her a better chance to have kids in the future despite the cancer, it was Gilbert she asked to be the sperm donor. He agreed. "It was really horrible. I had to have a shot every day." Gilbert learned to give her the shot. "I felt like since we did all this together, he's here to stay," Natasha says.

"When I told him I was sad that I would miss the excitement of finding out I was pregnant, he even said, 'We get to plan it.'"

That spring, during her 16 weeks of chemotherapy, she continued to work, taking days off after the treatments. Her thick brown hair fell out. Her skin paled and her face became blotchy. She wore scarves and hats at school -- her wig was hot and uncomfortable. She thought she looked horrible.

Gilbert shaved his head in an act of solidarity. He even took pictures of their two bald heads. During the chemo they traveled with friends to the British Virgin Island of Tortola. "We did everything normal people do," Gilbert says.

After weighing different treatment options, Natasha had a double mastectomy in July 2005. She wanted to eliminate the chance of cancer spreading to her right breast. Doctors found she had had stage-2 invasive ductal carcinoma, cancer of the milk ducts that had spread to surrounding breast tissue. At the same time, she had breast reconstructive surgery. Two expanders were inserted to stretch the skin and muscle. Later, she got saline implants. Every day for six weeks that fall she left school to have radiation.

Three months after the treatments ended, in February 2006, Gilbert proposed. They were married in Montego Bay, Jamaica, that August, with just their immediate families and a few friends in attendance.

Natasha's hair has grown back now, wavy and beautiful. She continues to work. And plan. In July she stopped taking tamoxifen. Her body needs to be free of the drug in order for her to try to implant those embryos (she'll need three more years of tamoxifen afterward). She worries she is being selfish by wanting a child. "I don't know if I'm going to get sick again five years from now or two years from now," she says. When she tells that to Gilbert he says right back that she's not going to die and she's going to be fine. "And that," Natasha says, "is, honestly, the best thing to hear."

"I had just gotten promoted..."

Diana Sacchi-Martinovic was just six months into a long-worked-for promotion to vice president of human resources for Avon's Asia region when she got the call. It was December 28, 2006, on a New York City street, during a Christmas outing with her two sons.

Her doctor told her that a needle biopsy revealed she had ductal carcinoma, cancer of the milk ducts, in her left breast. The tumor was small and it was too early to know whether the cancer had spread or what stage it was in.

She told her boys, Maurizio and Francesco, then 16 and 11, the bad news, right there on the street. She also called her husband, Alek Martinovic, at his New York office, and her parents in Peru. Then the trio continued their planned visit to the Nintendo store and to dinner.

All this had started with a routine mammogram nine days earlier. By January 1, when Diana called her boss in Hong Kong, she knew she'd have surgery and more tests to learn what else to do. He told her not to worry, to just take care of herself.

Despite the support of her company, Diana felt the pressure of a job with responsibility for a few thousand Avon employees in 10 Asian countries. She'd agreed to spend two out of every four weeks in Asia, which allowed her to avoid uprooting her husband, who works for the United Nations Security Council, and sons from Westport, Connecticut, where they've lived for almost 15 years.

But now, instead of flying to Hong Kong on January 7 for a meeting of Asia-region managers she'd helped organize, she visited more doctors; both her New York HR boss and Avon's CEO, Andrea Jung, had put her in touch with the Avon Foundation, which referred her to breast cancer physicians. Two weeks later, on January 15, Diana had a lumpectomy at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Though her cancer was stage 1, the tumor was aggressive. She took her only time off then -- a two-week disability leave -- to ponder the next choices.

When an Oncotype DX test showed a 12 percent chance of cancer returning within 10 years, she decided on chemo. "I wanted to kill all the cells before they even think about coming back into my body," she said. From March to May, she worked by e-mail and phone and went to her New York office once or twice a week.

Slowly, Diana began to travel again. In fact, she was at a business meeting in Florida in March, by which time her hair had already begun to fall out in clumps, when she decided to cut it off. When she returned home, her formerly shoulder-length hair was an inch long. "That was a bit of a shock," says Maurizio, now 17.

Until she lost her hair, many people didn't know she was sick. "I told people selectively on a one-on-one basis," she says. When her hair fell out, though, she mostly wore scarves rather than her wig. "A scarf is just more comfortable," she says. Between May, when chemo ended, and June, when radiation began, she managed to travel to Bangkok.

But cancer makes you concede some things, and Diana decided she had to tell Avon she couldn't keep up her intense travel schedule. Avon offered her a new position, vice president of human resources for global corporate functions, based in New York, with a start date of September 1. She will still travel, but much less.

"I was 33 weeks pregnant..."

Nathaniel saved her life.

That's what Regina Stuve believes and what her doctor says is entirely possible. Regina was seven months pregnant with Nate when she found a lump in her left breast while putting on sunscreen. She was going for the last boat ride of the summer, her Fendi sunglasses and a straw cowboy hat firmly in place. It was September 4, 2006, Labor Day.

"Don't worry," people said. "You're pregnant; your breasts get lumpy."

Up till then she'd had the kind of life where everything did turn out to be fine. She was a 36-year-old publicist for Universal Music Group Nashville, in Tennessee, married for seven years to Ron Stuve, 45, vice president of artists and repertoire at BMG Music Publishing. They had a chocolate Labrador, Lucy, and lived in a 1940s stone Tudor house 10 minutes from her job. Regina worked with country music stars like Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, and Josh Turner. She had a personal trainer, ate well and had never been seriously sick.

An ultrasound on September 27 showed something. You have an 80 percent chance it's nothing, her doctor told her, but he did a biopsy that same day, just to be sure.

On October 2, Regina got the call at work. She had breast cancer. Her world stopped. Although some researchers believe some treatments can be safe, she resisted the idea of having chemotherapy while she was still pregnant. "I literally put my fingers in my ears, saying 'lalala,' when the doctor tried to talk to me about it," she said.

The next day her gynecologist told her Nate was big enough for her to have induced labor. The following morning, now 34 weeks into the pregnancy, Nate was born, at 5 pounds, 12 ounces.

Nine days later, with Nate still in the hospital for monitoring, doctors removed Regina's breast and with it an aggressive (stage-2) cancer that had not yet spread to the lymph nodes. Because it was hormone positive, her pregnancy hormones may indeed have made it show up faster.

The surgery was followed by five months of exhausting chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation. All that, plus a newborn, meant Regina needed help with everything. Her mother, Brenda Stephens, moved in for a time to tend to Regina. When Regina didn't have enough energy to wash her face, her mom washed it for her and rubbed cream into her dry skin. Ron calls Brenda "the most valuable player in all this." Meanwhile, Ron tended to Nate.

The country music world circled the family. Stars and execs celebrated Nate's birth, brought in food during the long recovery, and sent flowers, gifts, and many e-mails of concern -- including one sent by Reba McEntire, who also paid for Regina's two wigs and gave her a personalized quilt for Nate's nursery. "The warm embrace that I feel from my friends in the music industry continues to lift my spirit and gives me strength," Regina wrote in her journal in November.

The part that hit her hardest emotionally was losing her long blond hair. It was even harder than not breastfeeding, since she could hold Nate close to bottle-feed him. Once, outside a market in Florida where the family vacationed this June after her last radiation treatment, a little boy looked up at the person in the big straw hat, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirt and said, "Is that a lady, Mommy?" Regina is not a crier, but she cried about this. A hair/makeup artist friend made hair extensions on strips that Regina could Velcro into her hats.

Regina's hair has grown to half an inch now. She and Ron joke that the whole family has the same hairstyle, Nate included. Because her cancer was both hormone and HER2 positive, she'll take Herceptin (for HER2) until February 2008 and tamoxifen (to deal with hormones) for five years. The combination of the two drugs is designed to help lower the risk of recurrence, according to her oncologist, David Johnson, MD, director of the division of hematology/oncology at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. She plans to have breast reconstruction surgery after Christmas.

Regina went back to work in July. Her boss sent her flowers, and her coworkers told her she didn't look sick at all.

And on October 4, the boy who saved his mother's life turns a year old.

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2007.

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