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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the October 13, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Breast Cancer Diaries
I remember someone died, a young VP, had a heart attack, and life just went right on. They put a plaque in the hall. And someone filled his seat."
"I was on a plane stopped in Miami, on my way to Cancun with my family for vacation. I had just finished some work, and I actually handed it in a Fed Ex envelope to a total stranger who was disembarking and asked, `Would you mind dropping this off in a Fed Ex box before 6 p.m.?’"
"I left the house at 7 a.m. and got back at 7 p.m. I totally missed my daughter’s kindergarten through third grade."
Sound like typical water cooler banter? Hardly. These are the words of women who survived breast cancer and took a 180-degree turn on their career as a result. Their stories are totally different but they all agree on one thing: Breast cancer saved their lives, by enabling them to look death squarely in the face – so that they might turn abruptly the other way, towards life itself.
Though rife with drama and disappointment, horror and heartbreak, their stories are more Aesop’s fable than tearjerker novel, three tales of uncommonly strong and yet terribly typical women that should make anyone, female or male, stop short on their career track and ask, "What would happen if I just got off at the next stop?"
Diana Fortier, 61
You would never guess that Fortier, in a pale blue suit, with merry eyes and soft blonde hair, standing amidst gorgeous jackets, blouses, and dresses in her cozy boutique, Be In Style, at 2 Chambers Street, was once a workaholic and a complete corporate tool. "Life was passing me by. My husband and I would joke, ‘I’ll wave to you as our planes pass by each other.’"
First a systems analyst then a project manager for Continental Insurance for 10 years, Fortier says her first computer job doubled the salary she was previously making as a teacher in North Brunswick. The Queens, New York, native and daughter of a factory worker, earned a B.A. in education from Kean College in 1975, attending school at night while her two children were little. She got bit by the computer bug and started the first computer lab at the middle school where she taught.
"When I was teaching I felt I needed to challenge myself even more, so I got my masters in computer science (in 1984) and started sending resumes to New York," she says. Landing a lucrative job at Continental, Fortier dug her heels into her work, was quickly promoted through the ranks, and eventually had six people reporting to her as head of a division that developed a complex online database for clients like K-Mart and JB Hunt Trucking. She traveled two weeks out of four, including running a catastrophe unit in South Carolina when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1987.
She describes the corporate world as a total pressure cooker. "Everything is for the business. That’s how you become programmed: What is going to make the business profitable? I left the house at 7 a.m. and got home at 8 p.m. You put yourself aside."
When CNA bought Continental, Fortier signed an agreement to stay on a certain amount of time, but she knew her days were numbered. "I was at that point, with the buyout, not knowing where was I to go. I asked myself, what do I want to do with the rest of my life?" She went back to school at night, earning her real estate license in 1997 – and left CNA the same year.
Looking back, Fortier sees a divine nature to the way things played out. "I look back now. We have a sense. I don’t ignore that anymore." In May 1998, when she was 54, Fortier went for a routine mammogram at Princeton hospital. "When I got home, I knew. I spoke with my husband and daughter, Annette. I told them, ‘I know it’s going to be cancer.’"
She was brought in a second time, and the radiologist identified a suspicious lump, gaving Fortier the names of two surgeons. Henry Davison of Princeton Surgical Associates performed a needle biopsy that came back inconclusive and told her he needed to go in and take a specimen. Fortier decided on a lumpectomy, which Davison performed in June. The diagnosis at her post-op appointment: A stage 2 tumor, 2 cm, invasive ductal carcinoma. In a separate procedure to check if the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, Davison removed 10 nodes, two of which were cancerous.
"I was numb," remembers Fortier. "The words he was speaking – chemo, radiation, statistics – just washed over me. Fear comes over you. You’re stunned. Trying to comprehend. All you hear is ‘cancer.’ I grew up with cancer as a word that meant killer."
Fortier chose Peter Yi at the Medical Center at Princeton for her oncologist and credits both Davison and Yi. "I was blessed because I had two doctors who were very experienced but also very human." She also went for a second opinion to Theresa Galeski, a former colleague of Yi’s, now at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. Galeski concurred with Yi’s chemo protocol, which he had just learned about at a conference – four sessions of adriamycin/cytoxin, four of Taxol.
The chemo was grueling for Fortier, who says that she and her husband would joke, "If there was a 1 to 2 percent chance of a side effect, I got it." The meds she received to counter the side effects of chemo made her very sick. At one point she went back for a consult with Galeski, when a pain in her head made her so ill she couldn’t lift her head off the pillow. "I thought she would say, skip the rest of the a/c, go right on to Taxol. But instead she said, ‘Diana, if you want to make it, you’ve just gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ I sat on that table and the tears just came down. I cried all the way home. During that crying I realized there is no short cut. I give her credit because she said it very bluntly."
As if that wasn’t enough suffering, Fortier developed a blood clot and was rushed to the Medical Center at Princeton where she stayed for several days. She credits one nurse there, Chris Munger, for turning her attitude around. "One night, I was so depressed I felt like my life the way I knew it was gone. I did not see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was so dark. Chris came to give me my meds, and I started talking to her. She said, ‘You can make it through.’ She told me she was a breast cancer survivor. She said, ‘Hang in there.’ That was the first time I knew there was hope."
She calls her husband, Bob, a vice president and partner in AC Compacting, a pharmaceutical machinery distribution company, "an angel who was always there. Without him, it would have been 100 times more difficult. We made decisions together. He came to every appointment." He also would go get Brandon, Fortier’s grandson who lived nearby, anytime she would say, "I need a Brandon fix." One day she was reading Brandon a book, and she got a headache. I told him `Nana has a headache,’ and I took my wig off. A couple of days later, my daughter called and told me she had said to Brandon, `Mommy has a headache, I’m going to lay down,’ and Brandon had replied matter-of-factly, ‘Why don’t you just take your hair off like Nana?’"
In April, 1999, Fortier finished her treatment. "I realized there was no way I was going back to the rat race. You were just a number. There was no compassion. And the stress – I did not want that anymore. I’m convinced stress is a factor in breast cancer. I wanted to change my world, the way I was living. I wanted to do something that would give joy to my life. I enjoy art, I paint, I love fashion and color. I felt other women going through cancer needed to hear survivors say, ‘You can make it. Cancer is not a death sentence.’"
With her own money, Fortier opened Be In Style in May, 2000, exactly two years after her cancer diagnosis. She takes no salary and gives all the store’s profits to Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, part of the American Cancer Society.
Says Fortier: "Once you face your mortality, you realize life is precious, a gift. On a rainy day, when people say, What a dreary day, I say, Embrace it, enjoy it, and make that day into something.
"At first the corporate world was fun. The money was good. But after a while the stress and pressure were too much. You weren’t human anymore, like a machine. You want to stop but oops, you can’t do it. We don’t stop and listen to that inner voice, that child within who is sending us little messages. Then one day we wake up, like I did. And I tell people, Listen to that inner self because he or she is wise and knows what you really want and need."
Lois Harrison, 48
If you can be aware of your true nature and you do what resonates true to you and be in the present, it eliminates stress. That’s Taoism," says Lois Harrison, who has been studying Taoism – an ancient Chinese belief system centered on the balance of opposites and synergy with the natural world – since September, 2001. If you had spoken to Harrison six years ago about stress, she would have told a very different story.
In 1998, she was at the height of a successful career as a retail buyer and merchandiser for Macy’s, commuting to New York from Plainsboro. "I had two kids – one six, one two – three cats, and a European nanny who changed every year. Going at 200 miles per hour was my norm. I never enjoyed anything in the moment. That’s stress in itself."
The daughter of a metallurgist and a housewife, Harrison moved constantly as a child due to her father’s work on government contracts. "I lived in six different places – and that was just high school," she says. Recognizing that the best opportunities for women were in retail, she earned her BA in marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1978, then climbed the ladder of the retail world, first at the May Company in St. Louis, then Marshall Fields in Chicago, the Limited, Lord and Taylor, and finally Macy’s, where she was the buyer of moderate sportwear for 80 stores.
"I traveled overseas all the time," says Harrison. "Do you want to know what stress is? Stress is arriving in New Delhi, India, the day after Citibank was bombed. Stress is getting out of Seoul, South Korea, five hours before 25,000 students protested. I was there for the farmers’ strike in Taipei. I was flying all over the world in 1993, when the Locherbie crash occurred." But, she admits, there was an upside, like her six-figure income. "It became like a drug. When business was good there was no better high. Success feeds the ego."
Looking back, Harrison says she can trace her breast cancer to a significant period of stress in her life as well as other factors. In addition to tremendous stress from work, she was 32 when she was pregnant with her first child (a first pregnancy after age 32 is considered a risk factor for breast cancer). A rower in college, she had never given up her high carb, high protein diet. "When you train that hard, it causes stress on the immune system; your endorphins are constantly going up and down," says Harrison, who qualified for the World Rowing Championships in 1977 but had to bow out a month before the competition because of a shoulder injury.
While she acknowledges that there are genetic and environmental risk factors for cancer, deep down she believes "cancer is nothing more than an emotional tension that eats away at you; it manifests itself in the body. I think everyone has cancer cells. If your immune system and emotional health are strong, then you’re OK." She says her stress level reached its highest point in 1994, when she and her family moved to their dream house in Plainsboro. "My mother was hospitalized the day we moved in, and died seven weeks later."
In 1996 her father was hospitalized for two straight years, having developed scar tissue on his lungs and an enlarged heart from his years as a metallurgist. "I would leave the house at 7 a.m.," says Harrison, "put in a full day at Macy’s, come home at 7:30 or 8 p.m, and visit my father three nights a week in the hospital and every Sunday." Determined not to miss all the time she had lost with her daughter due to work, on the other two nights and Saturdays, she coached her son’s soccer and basketball teams and was a cub scout den mother.
In April 1998 she quit Macy’s. "I thought I was going to die," says Harrison. In August, 1999, Harrison turned 43, went for her annual mammogram at the beginning of the month, and at the end of the month took the family to Florida to celebrate their collective health.
Shortly after she returned, she got a call from her ob-gyn. "She said there was a problem with my mammogram and asked whether anyone from her office had called me, and I said no. She said that there was something on my mammogram that looked like gum that was stretched out." Harrison told no one and in October went to a surgeon. "He cuts it out and says, I’m thinking it’s nothing, it’s soft and fibrous. Come back in a week." Her follow-up appointment was the day before she was supposed to leave for a trip with her husband to New Orleans. The doctor said the pathology showed she had a 1.6 cm tumor, stage 1, invasive ductal carcinoma.
"He just became a voice," says Harrison. "I thought, my mother and father are gone. Who is going to take care of my children? I’ll just be at home until I die. I’ll never go into a hospital, not after having just gone through what I went through with my father. I was just a mind with no body, nothing around me was real."
She called her husband, Steve Schloss, who was at the time working in sales in New York, and said, "Guess what? I have breast cancer." He hung up and walked down the hall to tell his boss. He fainted, fell, and broke his jaw, which later had to be wired shut.
Ensconced in what would appear to be the perfect suburban neighborhood full of stay-at-home moms, Harrison remembers feeling very alone during her treatment. "Through my cancer, this was not a very supportive community. I coached, but not one parent of kids who I coached ever gave me one bit of help. Not one person offered to take me to chemo. One neighbor brought me one meal – once."
She says her source of strength came instead from two places – watching her father on a ventilator for two years, and Patty Meers, a West Windsor resident whose two sons are the same age as her kids, whom they had met in preschool. "Patty went through cancer, not breast cancer, and I watched her sit on the sidelines and watch her kids’ games, cherishing every moment, full of bravery. She said to me, `Take it day by day and never give up hope.’ Meers lost her fight to cancer, and Harrison says that during her own treatment she walked her dog every day by the tree planted in Meers’ name at West Windsor Community Park.
Harrison put on her "New York corporate hat" and attacked her disease with a vengeance. When a doctor at Robert Wood Johnson in New Brunswick saw that she was large-breasted and told her she "should just cut if off," she turned around and went to surgeon Alexandra Heerdt at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, who recommended a lumpectomy to ensure clean margins. She went to oncologist Anne Moore at New York-Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, who created her chemo protocol based on a system developed in France, in which she only lost half her hair ("nobody could even tell") and was able to control the nausea, a common side effect of chemo, through diet and drinking lots of water. She did her radiation at Sloan-Kettering with radiation oncologist Beryl McCormick, taking a train, then a subway, then a four-block walk – every day for six weeks. The radiation was done with Harrison laying prone, face down, in a set-up that allowed the breast to hang away from the ribcage. Harrison’s cancer was in her left breast; the radiation went straight across the breast, eliminating the possibility of "scatter" to the heart and lung.
Says Harrison: "When I was diagnosed with breast cancer it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was my gift. It made me rethink my whole life. When you’re in the corporate world, there are so many deadlines. You never get a chance to breathe. Breast cancer knocked me on my butt. When you’re lying in bed for two straight days after chemo with not even enough energy to watch TV, what do you do? You think about your life. How am I going to make every day special?"
One day, while walking her dog, Harrison had an epiphany. "It hit me. I remembered a hot stone massage I had had in between chemo appointments. I thought, hmm, massage, that could be interesting. I wanted to do something that still allowed me to be a mom – your kids are not home forever – but something that dealt with people one-on-one, that benefited people." She went home, hopped on the Internet, and came across the Somerset School of Massage, which was having a career night that very week. In winter, 2000, at age 44, Harrison graduated as valedictorian of her class.
She sees 15 to 20 clients a week out of her home office, a spare bedroom she has transformed into a quiet haven, painted sky blue. "I didn’t want the space to be cozy. I wanted it to evoke space, openness, and nature, like a beach with open skies," says Harrison, A heron woodcut, a souvenir from Charleston, South Carolina, graces one wall in the center of four small shelves, each bearing natural items to represent the four seasons. Many of her clients are as stressed as she used to be. "I have clients now who are so tense. One guy came in with dizziness and headaches; his neck and head were like cement."
The client base of Bright Moments Massage Therapy has grown exponentially through word of mouth, and Harrison is so busy that she literally schedules in her daybook one day off a week just to herself.
In her old life she got a high from beating last year’s sales goals; this past summer her high came from being chosen from among 500 applicants to be one of 100 massage therapists at the Summer Olympics in Athens – and she got to work with rowers. "I was back in an environment of people striving to be the best."
Now the ex-exec says: "In the corporate world, the results are money and profits. Now, in my work, my results are giving someone their mobility back – like one kid who couldn’t walk right after an accident is now swimming. I bring more than massage; I do it from a place of love."
Harrison just passed her five-year mark of being cancer-free. Last spring she started rowing again through an adult rowing program at Mercer County Park. She believes people are so paralyzed by fear of suffering at death that it stops them from living. "Why are we not living today? I say, ‘Die before you die. Start living life like you really want to live it now.’"
Nancy Healey, 48
It’s not always the stress of the corporate world that propels a breast cancer survivor to change her career. Sometimes it is the realization that it would be more fulfilling to transfer one’s skill set to a new setting. Nancy Healey began her career as a special education teacher in Brooklyn and Jersey City. When her son was born she stayed home, intending to return to teaching at some point.
"When my son turned three, we were thinking about having another child. Before I knew I was pregnant I felt a lump," says Healey, who was 35 at the time. She told her gynecologist, Daniel Small at Lawrence Ob-Gyn, that she thought she might be pregnant and thought she should have a mammogram. "He said, ‘We should just watch it.’ The next month it disappeared somewhat – and I miscarried."
In 1991, anxious to get pregnant again, Healey was still worried about the lump. Small told her: "You just turned 36. We’ll do a mammogram, then you won’t have to worry about it." "Thirteen years later I still thank him," she says. Steven Kahn, a surgeon at the Medical Center at Princeton, removed the lump, a 1.5 cm tumor, stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma that was hiding behind a cyst. In a second surgery, she had 19 lymph nodes removed, which turned out to be clean. "I was very fortunate," says Healey. "The mammogram did exactly what it was supposed to do." Under oncologist John Sierocki’s direction, Healey underwent six weeks of a mild form of prophylactic chemo (at the time, chemo was not typically prescribed when the lymph nodes were clean) and six weeks of radiation.
"I never went to a support group," Healey says. "When October 1992 hit, I really emotionally fell apart." Still desperate to have a second child, she says, " I never really connected with the cancer community. All my friends were talking about having kids. I felt like the white elephant in the room." Her husband encouraged her to go to a support group. Friends told her they had heard about "something at the Y."
That "something" turned out to be a support group facilitated by the Breast Cancer Resource Center (BCRC), under the auspices of the YWCA Princeton. Expecting to hate it, Healey had quite the opposite experience. She found herself obsessed with finding other breast cancer survivors who wanted to get pregnant, as she did. After thorough research, she couldn’t find anyone, and told her husband, "We have to make this decision ourselves." In the meantime, she ravenously attended every BCRC seminar, and one day, was offered the job of assistant director.
"It was a wonderful fit," says Healey, who earned her bachelors in elementary education and special education from Boston University in 1977 and a masters in special education from Columbia in 1982. She found that her experience as a special ed teacher helped her tremendously in her job, as she talked with new patients, facilitated support groups, and organized guest speaker events. "It was really fate. Imagine the thing that makes you smile being your job. It really helped me see the positive side of cancer."
Still yearning for a second child, she says: "I listened to a little voice inside me that said you have to try." Healey suffered two more miscarriages. "The third time’s a charm," she says; her daughter was born in 1996. One can only wonder how Healey hung in there. "I think it’s that fight or flight instinct – you don’t realize how strong you are until you have adversity in your life. I see it every time I talk to a patient. The instinct for survival takes over. Regardless of their place in life, these women find the courage and strength to handle their disease. I’ve lost so many people I’ve come to know through my job. People say, ‘How do you do it?’ I see more beauty than tragedy."
Healey’s adversity was far from over, however. When her daughter was 18 months old, Healey’s cancer came back. She underwent a mastectomy, reconstruction, and aggressive chemo. "I was sick and lost my hair but emotionally it was easier. I had the right support system."
In January 2002, Jane Rodney, the executive director of BCRC, died of breast cancer. Healey, who had served as co-director with Rodney for three years during her illness, took over her position. "I feel very fortunate to have a job that I love," she says. "Some people, even if they want to, can’t do the nonprofit thing. They need big-paying jobs. But they can still find whatever their passion might be, maybe through church, or volunteering with children, or (supporting) different diseases.
"I think everybody with cancer finds out what they want to do with their life. You’re not ready to say ‘I’m done.’ You say, ‘I have plans, I want to see my kids grow up.’ In my job I get to see the best in human beings and human nature. I’m always amazed and struck by the grace and dignity – to see people come back from cancer and say, ‘I want to help; I want to give back.’"
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