Survivor Story: Betty Handelman of New City

Peter D. Kramer has this story from Sunday’s Journal News about Betty Handelman of New City:

In 1987, Betty Handelman’s gynecologist told her she had breast cancer.

“It was very sobering,” says Handelman, of New City. “I remember it vividly and will never forget it.”

She had been having regular mammograms, but the large lump her doctor felt that day hadn’t been there six months earlier. The physician ordered a new mammogram immediately.

Handelman was 49, married, with an 18-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. And she had stage 2 breast cancer.

“I didn’t know anyone who had ever been diagnosed with cancer and survived, any cancer,” she says. “That was not a good thing.”

Photos by Seth Harrison / The Journal News

She had surgery to remove her right breast and two lymph nodes, and went through six months of chemotherapy. She joined a support group.

“(I saw) other people who had been where I was at that time and they had hair,” she says. “That began to improve my outlook: If they could do it, I might make it, too. I turned the emotional corner.”

Before too long, she was running the meetings, evolving from someone who knew no one with the disease to a facilitator in a community of women sharing their difficult journeys.

Attitudes toward cancer were different then. The word was spoken in hushed tones behind closed doors. Now there are pink ribbons, pink wigs and three-day walkathons.

“It’s very vocal now, and they’ve raised awareness, all of which is a good thing because it demystifies the whole disease,” Handelman says.

She sought inspiration in the words of others.

“I used to collect quotations, pithy proverbs by really sharp people,” she says. “I had them in a shoe box and I would take them out and look at them. My husband said ‘Instead of doing it in a shoe box, why don’t you get a blank book and copy them in? Then you could peruse the pages of the book.’ So I made myself a volume of quotes.”

Day after day, she’d write out quotes — in her curling, meticulous penmanship. Its effect was immediate.

“The writing exercise, the reading of the quotes, the attention that I spent on that, when I was doing that I was not thinking of dying. And that gave birth to a mania. I have made hundreds of these books, and given them to patients and friends.”

Her favorite quote comes from cancer patient Jane Rodney: “There is life after cancer diagnosis. We don’t know how many days we have yet to live. But we didn’t know that before the diagnosis, either. The important difference now is that we recognize life’s fragility and the value of a second chance. We have a new lifetime partner: Hope.”

After the jump,  10 things Betty Handelman took away from her battle with breast-cancer.

1. Attitude, she says, is everything. “There is no percentage in wallowing in despair. It just drags you down and it’s not productive.”

2. Support groups helped. “When I went to the support group I did not feel so isolated, because there were people there who knew what I was talking about, who had either experienced it or were experiencing it. It didn’t seem crazy to them.”

3. Having been helped, she helped others. “I really feel, in retrospect, that I made a difference in the lives of many people, and I’m still in touch with them. “I used to drive patients to treatments. One woman was very young, about 32, with very young children, and she was very fragile. I went to the oncologist’s office with her and I would sit there knitting, and then she had to go in and I’d say to her, ‘Listen. You’re going to be OK.’ To this day, she remembers that.”

4. She didn’t shrink from parenting duties. “I taught my daughter how to drive,” she says with a laugh. “You know you have to been in good nervous condition to do that. Now, my oldest grandchild is driving, so I’ve come full circle.”

5. She became passionate about getting the word out. “Every one of my friends went for a mammogram within a month of my diagnosis. At least they knew it was something they had to do, because if it could happen to me it could happen to them.”

6. She opted out of a breast reconstruction. “I have a chest that has one breast. I look at the scar and I see that as a scar of health. As soon as I knew that this was cancer, I felt it was a grenade that could go off. I wanted it out.”

7. Her advice for those who face a breast-cancer: “Recognize that whatever you have to go through, it’s time limited. The treatments end and you get your figure back and life goes on.”

8. She tends to take annoyances in stride. “In the grand scheme of things, even telemarketers — who torment us from 8 in the morning till 8:30 at night — don’t matter.”

9. The surgery and treatment gave her two dozen years of memories. “In those early days, I was wondering ‘Am I going to get to see my children reach their milestones?’ That was pretty scary, but I did. They graduated. They got married. They had children. I have five grandchildren.”

10. She still compiles the books.

“I always have one in progress,” she says.

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and LoHud.com, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.