Survivor Stories

Find inspiration in the stories of other breast cancer survivors. If you would like to share your own story, please do so by sending it to [email protected].

According to Dictionary.com Unabridged, a survivor is “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.” Dictionaries have to be concise and literal, and their definitions may be lacking in their ability to express personal sentiment. I believe a survivor is defined by, but not limited to, the dictionary entry above. A survivor is also a symbol of hope and strength, a source of expertise on whatever he/she survived, and a representative of change.

There is disagreement in the medical community as to how to define “survivor”. Many consider a survivor to be someone who is in remission from disease while others prefer to apply the term to anyone who has or had the disease. Their belief is that if you are living, then you are surviving. This survivor section of our site was created in the spirit of the latter; anyone who lives with or previously lived with cancer is a survivor.

However you define it, we hope you will share your story with us to both inform and inspire others.

“True courage is like a kite; a contrary wind raises it higher.”
– John Petit Senn

 

Gloria Dunetz

The Inspiration Behind The Side-Out Foundation

“It was the hair. I was known for my hair.” Gloria Dunetz and I are sitting at her kitchen table on a chilly winter day. She says it’s an OK day, not good, not bad. I think her wig is beautiful, but I can understand feeling loss for a favorite identifying characteristic.

Despite her treatments and recent news that the disease spread further, Gloria works out frequently and reminds others that she is “still healthy and viable”. She is looking forward to the daylilies that will bloom in her yard in a few months, flowers so gorgeous that they draw visitors from all over.

Gloria has metastatic breast cancer. When she was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 1997, she was scared. It was as though her perspective changed from a wide, all-encompassing vista to a narrow, dark tunnel…a foggy, narrow, dark tunnel. Nevertheless, she sensed the light peeking through the other side.

Her surgical appointment was set for February: a lumpectomy followed by radiation. She finished her treatments and eventually, she moved beyond her diagnosis as Gloria the patient to become Gloria the wife, mom, aunt and friend once again. She even took on a new role as Gloria, the grandmother!

Seven years passed, and she continued to dedicate herself to a workout regimen. When her trainer noticed a tiny bump on her neck, she wasn’t sure what to think. The PET scan revealed what no one expected after seven years in remission: the breast cancer was back and it had spread to the skin, liver and bones. Gloria pauses in the conversation to emphasize that many people don’t realize that skin is an organ, indeed the body’s largest organ. Everyone should schedule yearly checks with a dermatologist.

For Gloria, the news was “disastrously terrifying”. She had moved into a new home three weeks prior, but she felt no desire to explore the area or meet her neighbors. She kept her husband, Bryant, at her side at all times because she was afraid to be alone with her thoughts and fears. The oncologist’s phrase “my job is to prolong your life” echoed in her mind and she fell into a deep depression.

For three months, Gloria lived life from her couch. She didn’t feel like going shopping for antiques to later resell. She didn’t want to go outside and discover her new surroundings. The couch was comfortable and it kept her from having to exchange pleasantries with new neighbors whom she would not have time to get to know anyway. What was the point?

Gloria’s family also struggled with the recurrence. Rick, her youngest, assumed the job of coach, a role with which he was quite familiar given his new position as head coach for a local high school volleyball team. When he asked her to come watch his team, the West Springfield Spartans, play for regionals, she wanted to say no.

Rick convinced her to attend, and Gloria recalls the memory with fondness: “I saw the kids and I completely and thoroughly forgot about cancer for two hours”. From that one game, the Side-Out Foundation was born. The Spartans won games no one predicted they would win, and Gloria felt motivated by the girls’ gusto and determination. She realized believing in yourself, whether as an athlete or as a person facing an incredible challenge, not only required physical strength but also will of spirit, and she modeled her new perspective after those of the 2004 West Springfield girls volleyball team.

Still, she reminds me that there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer and she does not believe that positive thinking can heal you or change the outcome of your disease. “But”, she adds, “it certainly can’t hurt.”

Gloria’s treatment for metastatic cancer has consisted of drug after drug. When one stops working, they search for a new one. Sometimes the side effects are so uncomfortable, the doctors must find yet another drug. Unfortunately, there is not much research being conducted for metastatic breast cancer, and obviously this upsets Gloria.

“The trial may be a glimmer of hope”. She’s referring to a trial that just began, one that is receiving funding from Side-Out. It concentrates on the protein pathways (the molecular fingerprint) in the tumors of each patient, with the goal of establishing personalized treatment that will most effectively attack the tumors.

Although there may never be talk of remission or cure, Gloria continues with her everyday activities, and she enjoys moments shared with her “circle of love” (her close friends and family). She mentions that her world is smaller now than it used to be since she doesn’t go as many places, but she’s OK with that.

When I ask her how she feels about the success of Side-Out, she replies, “I’m happy that I have a legacy, but Side-Out is not my life. I just want to live.” I can’t help but be inspired by her strength and grace. She’s much like the lilies that will soon be blooming in her yard: strong, adaptable and elegant.

Marsha Milsom

Breast Cancer Survivor

My name is Marsha Milsom, and I have had breast cancer two times in my life! Ten years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. About 1 1/2 years ago, a family doctor told me the tiny lump on the inner edge of my breast, where some natural tissue was left, was nothing, that it was my breast bone! He was WRONG and I was diagnosed by my OBGYN yet again with breast cancer on April 2nd, 2012. This time, however, the tumor had spread into my pectoral muscle and was now “invasive ductal carcinoma”. After 7 long months of treatments from chemo, another bilateral mastectomy, partial pectoral muscle removal and extensive radiation, my doctors feel I am free of it once again. I am one of a few women who have undergone two bilateral mastectomies that you will ever hear of. I won’t know for sure if I’m cured until late November after follow-up tests are run, but for now, I am considering myself a “two time BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR”!!!

One in eight women will get breast cancer in the US, and 85% of them are not hereditary. Breastcancer.org explains this disease in simple terms and how to prevent it.

If you take anything away from my story, please let it be that you understand how vital it is to keep up with regular self-exams, routine well woman check-ups and mammograms! You can possibly prevent what I’ve just gone through by early detection.

Should a loved one or friend you know be stricken by breast cancer or any other type of cancer, it is important that you tell them how much they mean to you. Be patient, loving and above all, encourage them to fight because they are worth it!

Summer Bondurant

Breast Cancer Survivor

I was 32 when did my first self-exam and found a small lump in my left breast. It was November 2008, right after Breast Cancer Awareness month. I had been given a small brochure on how to do a self-exam. First mammogram, then painful biopsy, told over the phone I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. In December, I had a double mastectomy with TRAM reconstruction. In January I started 4 rounds of chemo and did another reconstruction in June that year. So much more to the story… I did pretty well during treatment to make sure everyone knew I was “fine”. Post treatment, I took an emotional nose dive and the scars and my disfigurement were too much. I felt “damaged”. Just a few weeks ago, I did the bravest thing and did a Boudoir photo shoot. I am finally embracing my scars as a part of me ….but they DO NOT define me.

I am a mother to 2 precious boys, 11 and 7. I also founded a small HR/Compensation Consulting firm in Nov 2010 that I run out of my house. My experience gave me the courage to take a risk to start Crabapple Consulting. I never would have done it otherwise.

Angela’s Battle

Breast Cancer Survivor

I want to tell you about my mom’s battle with breast cancer. I was 15 years old when she sat me down at the table on October 30, 2011. I will never forget those four words. When she first said “I have breast cancer,” it seemed so unreal. I thought that she must have been lying because I was a sophomore in high school and shouldn’t have to deal with this. It was in the upcoming year that I would realize just how many kids at my school had a parent battling cancer or who had a parent lose their fight to this disease.

On November 21 of 2011 my mom underwent her bilateral mastectomy. Unlike many people, my mom had a huge support group. During this surgery, she had 8 people in the waiting room for her. She had a long recovery following that in which I was her primary caretaker. Imagine that. Imagine being a 15 year old, not yet able to drive a car, taking care of a parent with cancer. Emptying her drains, making sure she took her medicine, cooking, cleaning, going to work, and going to school. Just imagine how stressed I was. I was so, extremely grateful for all of my teachers. They became understanding and seemed to really care. You see, my mom is a language arts teacher at my school, so she, without my permission, emailed all of my teachers telling them how much I was doing at home.

Once she was recovered, she began chemotherapy in January 2012. 10 rounds of chemo within 20 weeks. She had one round every other Friday so that she missed as little of work as possible.

She had 2 surgeries left. The first one she had on May 18, 2012 where they removed some more tissue to make sure there was no more cancer. It showed what we had hoped for and so that is the date that she was cancer free. Lastly, on July 10, 2012, my mom had her final reconstruction surgery. I was there with her. They were running behind so when she was supposed to have her surgery at 9 am, it actually was at 3 pm. We weren’t too happy, but it all worked out because today, she is healthy.

I am now 16 and a junior in high school. My mom is healthy and we are all doing much better. I am just beginning to prepare for college as my senior year quickly approaches, and my mom is happy with her boyfriend, Glenn. My mom and I have realized that this battle has just made us stronger. As much as I hated when people said that everything happens for a reason, it is true. This happened to my family so that I could learn to appreciate them more and we could grow closer. My moms diagnosis may not have been what I wanted in my life, but it was what WE needed in our lives.

Patti Clahar

Breast Cancer Survivor

Patti Clahar, 42, is married with four children, active in her local community and a fitness enthusiast. She is also preparing to celebrate five years in remission this summer from Stage Three breast cancer. In July 2005, she was 37 and a single mother of four young children, divorced only six months. Her children were visiting their father when doctors informed Patti of her diagnosis: ductal carcinoma that spread to the lymph nodes. She, in turn, made sure to inform the doctors that this was not how she planned to go.

She endured chemotherapy, radiation in four different zones, hormonal therapy and multiple reconstructive surgeries, including a TRAM flap breast reconstruction. Throughout treatment, she maintained a positive outlook, bringing cheer to other patients, their families and her medical team. For Patti, cancer was a blessing because it gave her the opportunity to reset priorities and to view life from a different perspective. The experience itself may not have been pleasant, but Patti chose to seek joy, and she is certain her attitude played a critical role in healing.

A cancer diagnosis not only affects the patients, but also the patient’s family and friends. Patti knew this and she accepted support whenever it was offered, taking advantage of every additional service at Moffitt Cancer Center that would assist her in recovery. She was indeed a model patient, and her natural ability to find the good taught her children a valuable lesson about perseverance.

As a single mother, Patti was especially challenged by the task of treatment and family, but her children reflected the courage they saw in her. Patti watched as her oldest child quietly assumed the role of mother, turning on the nightly news so she made sure to lay out weather-appropriate clothes for her siblings to wear in the morning. They massaged her legs when bone pain left her struggling in bed, reminding her that she “could do it”, undoubtedly a phrase she spoke to encourage them in their own lives.

Patti remarried a few years after her diagnosis when she met Phil. She does not mourn the changes in her body, but rather celebrates them as emblems of courage and will of spirit. Her plastic surgeon refers patients to her after witnessing her power to comfort and inspire. Patti is hopeful to return to studies in nursing, and what a wonderful nurse she will be!

Jane Steele

Breast Cancer Survivor

In 2001 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Was I shocked? Yes. Was I scared? Yes. Was I going to let this control my life? No. I was going to control it.

I had a lumpectomy with lymphnodes tested and the cancer had spread to the sentinal node. Because my cancer survived on estrogen, I also endured having a hysterectomy. I went through 5 rounds of the strongest chemo there was. I was very sick and lost 20 pounds. Then, came 30 consecutive days of radiation. That was a breeze compared to the chemo. I lost my hair, which at the time it was summer and couldn’t have been better for beach or pool. What woman wouldn’t be happy to not have to shave daily in the summer?! Through it all I stayed as positive as I could for my family. I kept the children’s schedules as normal as possible. I know it was hard for them to see me with no hair, but I hope in the end they will remember the positiveness and knowing that any obstacle God puts in your way, you can get through it.

When I look back on my cancer experience, I know it happened for a reason. I’m still trying to figure out what that reason is. God gave me life, he gave me a good life, he made me sick, and he healed me. I am so very thankful that I am here today enjoying life, not taking it for granted, and making memories with my family and friends. 90% of anyone’s recovery from sickness is your attitude. If you go into a sickness feeling sorry for yourself, you may not heal, or it may take you longer to heal. The best medicine is being able to lean on friends and family and talk about your experience. Do not be ashamed of it!

Anonymous

Breast Cancer Survivor

I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 27 years old! I had no family history, I was not in a high risk category, so the news was surprising and devastating. I had just had a baby a year earlier and was the mom of a five year old and had a husband that I did everything with, I couldn’t imagine losing any of them. So my competitive side came out and I wanted to beat this thing. It was only on one side, but I decided to have a full mastectomy. I was lucky my cancer had not spread to any nymph lodes and surgery had made my survival rate percentage rise. I decided to be aggressive and choose to do adjavent chemo therapy. I had four months of IV’s, sickness, body aches and complete hair loss! If I had to make those choices again, I would. I am very glad I choose a full mastectomy and preventive care. I had a husband who helped through every minute, I could not of done it without him and I am very blessed to be here today 6 years cancer free!

I read your side out site while looking for volleyball items. I live in a small town, but we are lucky to be able to play volleyball in a town close by. I also coach Junior High volleyball and enjoy the sport anytime I can play.

Ron Clifford

Throat and Tongue Cancer Survivor
Story told by Susan Rathgeber

One thing I wanted to share with you is a story of a Cancer Survivor, . Ronny is my ex-husband, and the father of our daughter Kate, who will be playing with me in tourneys this summer!

Just over 2 years ago, Ronny was diagnosed with throat and tongue cancers — both of which are much more common than you might believe, but are not given much “press”. To be honest, these types of cancer are really tricky, as (1) you can not survive without either a throat OR a tongue, (2) these types of cancers are generally very agressive, and tend to spread quickly to the lymph system, and (3) there are no good reconstructive surgeries currently available for people who lose tissue to these cancers.

Of course this was very sad news — at first, we feared that Ronny would not be around to see our daughter graduate this June. But Ronny himself told us he WAS going to fight this, he WAS going to beat it, and he WAS going to be at Graduation. Nothing would stop him!

Ronny’s first round of chemo, radiation, and surgeries was exhausting for us all. Due to the severity of the radiation, his throat was swollen closed for a number of months. This made it impossible for him to speak, or to eat. He needed to be fed through a tube for quite a long while. This treatment also wiped out his immune system, and we all had to be VERY careful to not pass along any “bugs” to him over about an 8 month period.

After this time, Ron went for a PET scan, to see how effective the treatment had been. While we learned that the tongue cancer had been stopped, the throat cancer was still growing, and at an alarming pace.

With barely a month in between treatments, and without losing hope whatsoever, Ron started a second and more rigorous series of treatments. He lost all the saliva glands in his mouth, and will never really be able to taste his meals again. He lost significant neck tissue, including much shoulder muscle, and has needed physical therapy to restore the use of his left arm. He also became somewhat depressed at having to be “isolated” for so long, with no immune system to speak of.

And even so — I am happy to say Ronny Clifford has, in just the past 3 months, had not one but TWO COMPLETELY CANCER-FREE PET SCANS!

We are so happy to finally be sending out Graduation invitations! We have about 15 family members attending, as much to see him there as to see Kate graduate. We have even bought him an air horn (since we don’t want him yelling TOO loudly when his daughter recieves her Diploma — strain on the throat!)

Ronny lost two years of his life and the ability to enjoy a meal to his Cancer. If you ask him “If you had it to do over again, would you still fight?”, his answer would be a resouonding “YES!!!”. He has been so tough through all this. He has been a real fighter, and has never given up hope. I feel like he is a real inspiration to everyone who knows him. And he has certainly proven that attitude is one great weapon against Cancer!


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