Survivor Story: Lauren Novotny of Dobbs Ferry

Heather Salerno wrote this profile of Lauren Novotny of Dobbs Ferry for the Sunday Life section on Oct. 16, 2011:

When Lauren Novotny of Dobbs Ferry felt a lump in her right breast in January 2010, she didn’t go to a doctor right away. Only 30 at the time, she waited for several months before looking into it.

“Maybe I didn’t want to face it, or didn’t really think it was anything major,” she says. “And then my friend, Kelly, was diagnosed. That hit home and hit hard.”

Novotny has known her best friend, Kelly Thomas, since they worked at the Chart House in Dobbs Ferry together when she was 18. So when Thomas revealed that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, Novotny got scared for her friend — and for herself.

Lauren Novotny poses Sept. 6, 2011. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2010 at age 31.( Joe Larese / The Journal News )

Lauren Novotny of Dobbs Ferry was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2010 at age 31. She took up meditation to help herself heal. ( Joe Larese / The Journal News )

As it turned out, Novotny’s lump was breast cancer, too, which had spread to her lymph nodes. That launched a whirlwind of treatment that included a double mastectomy and five months of chemotherapy. For her, the side effects of chemo were so bad — dehydration, heart palpitations, rashes and swollen limbs — that she ended up in the hospital twice.

Yet throughout her journey, Novotny has had Thomas to lean on, and vice versa. Each knew exactly what the other was going through: The two even sometimes got chemotherapy on the same day, and then they’d head to Thomas’ apartment in Nyack for what they called “chemo day care.” They’d try on each other’s wigs, watch reality shows and struggle through bouts of nausea and pain together.

“It was really a good experience for something that’s such a horrible experience, to have somebody by your side like that,” she says. “But in turn, I’m very upset that we both had to go through something like this.”

Up next for Novotny is some more reconstructive surgery, and she’s also been debating with her doctor about whether she needs to keep taking a cancer-fighting drug, tamoxifen. But most important, all of her follow-up tests have shown no sign that the cancer has returned. (Thomas is also doing well.) Yet she does wonder if she would have needed surgery or chemotherapy, if the disease had been caught earlier.

“I don’t regret anything, everything happens for a reason,” she says. “But I do suggest, and I’ve told every single one of my girlfriends, if you feel anything…go to the doctor.”

There are plenty of other ways that breast cancer has made an impact on Lauren Novotny. After the jump, 10 more examples of how the disease has changed her life:

1. She’s embraced healthier eating habits, opting for more fresh — and fewer processed — foods. Now, if Novotny really has a craving for french fries, she’ll “try to eat sweet potato fries or bake my own,” instead of hitting a fast-food restaurant.

2. She stopped drinking milk. With some studies linking consumption of cow’s milk with cancer — though evidence is inconclusive — Novotny isn’t taking a chance that it might contribute to a recurrence. These days, she substitutes rice or almond milk.

3. Given this increased interest in diet and health, it’s not surprising that Novotny is considering going back to school to become a nutritionist.

4. She’s investigating alternative medicine and holistic therapies, too, taking up meditation, acupuncture, tai chi and energy healing. “I’ve been interested in that for years,” she says. “Now I’m actually taking the time to (learn) more about it.”

5. She never misses out on a beautiful day. Even if she’s busy, she carves out time to go for a walk, a bike ride or to meditate by the Hudson River. “I’m not going to sit inside and watch TV or file my bills. I can save that for a rainy day.”

6. She hopes to give back by volunteering at an agency or facility focused on children with cancer. She says it would be wonderful to “be able to put a smile on somebody’s face who’s going through what I went through, or to help ease the anxiety of their parents.”

7. She wears more makeup! Before cancer, Novotny pretty much only wore mascara. But when chemotherapy left her pale and without hair, “I had to do something to make myself look presentable.” She laughs that she snagged beauty tips from the Style Network show, “Jerseylicious,” and now she gets tons of compliments on her newly acquired cosmetic skills.

8. She has a theme song: Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” Her favorite lyrics are, “I’m still standing better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.” “This was like an anthem of mine while getting over cancer,” she says. “I also sang it a few weeks back with some friends for karaoke.”

9. She forgives more easily. “I’d hold grudges or onto anger,” she says. “Now I walk away from it, which is good because I believe stress makes you sick.”

10. She’s become more aggressively involved in her health care, carefully questioning her doctors and doing her own independent research so she can make informed decisions. “I make sure something is right for me,” she says. “I want it to be more of a team than doctor-patient.”

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.