Learn more about testing for the breast cancer genes

This information also ran in Sunday’s Life & Style section about testing for the breast cancer genes.

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT GENETIC TESTING FOR BRCA

A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both skyrockets if she inherits a harmful mutation in genes — called BRCA1 and BRCA2 — linked to those diseases.
It’s important to understand, however, that most of these cancers are not hereditary. BRCA gene mutations are responsible for about 5 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers. Also, not everyone who is BRCA-positive will get sick.
Still, those with these mutations do face a significantly higher risk.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a BRCA-positive woman is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman in the general population (whose risk is about 12 percent). The average woman’s odds of getting ovarian cancer are about 1.4 percent, compared to 15 to 40 percent of women with the BRCA mutation. That knowledge allows people to make educated decisions about their future, which may include steps to reduce their cancer risk, such as increased cancer screenings, prophylactic surgery (like removing healthy breasts and ovaries) and cancer-prevention drugs.
So is a cancer gene test right for you?
Una Hopkins, a nurse practitioner certified in genetics at White Plains Hospital’s Dickstein Cancer Center, says that those with the following in their background might want to consider it:

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A mother’s choice

Here’s a story that ran in Sunday’s Life & Style section by reporter Heather Salerno. All photos are by Tania Savayan.

A mother’s choice: Allison Gilbert tests positive for breast cancer gene, makes life-altering decision

Irvington’s Allison Gilbert knows exactly what the human face of cancer looks like.

It’s the face of her grandmother, Henny, who died of breast cancer when Gilbert was a little girl. It’s the face of her mother, Lynn, who died of ovarian cancer in 1996. It’s also the face of her father, Sidney, who died of lung cancer five years later, leaving Gilbert an adult orphan at 31.

A few years after losing her dad, Gilbert discovered that this disease’s attack on her family wasn’t random: It’s a tragic birthright. Testing showed that she inherited a mutation in a gene called BRCA1, which drastically increases her chance of getting breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both. In fact, she was told that — without intervention — the odds of developing breast cancer in her lifetime were as much as 85 percent.

That revelation increased Gilbert’s fear that she might die young like her relatives, leaving her husband, Mark Weintraub, and their two children – Jake, now 12, and Lexi, 10 — behind. In 2007, with her family complete, she underwent surgery to remove her healthy ovaries — a decision The Journal News chronicled — and she continued to see doctors every three months for a breast exam, mammogram, sonogram or MRI, in order to catch breast cancer in an early stage. With each appointment, though, there was the potential for a dreadful diagnosis.

Gilbert had another option besides careful surveillance: another prophylactic, or preventive, surgery. Removing both still-healthy breasts would reduce her odds of getting breast cancer to about 1 percent, far lower than the average woman, whose lifetime risk is about 12 percent.

The Journal News caught up with the 42-year-old this year, after she made the decision to go forward with that operation, and followed her throughout the surgical process, in real time and on Facebook. The move, she hopes, will keep her around for Jake and Lexi for a very long time.

“I’m trying to make this a parenting decision,” she says. “It’s really about my kids. Even though it’s my body, I feel it’s really more about them than it’s about me.”

 

 

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Given her family history, it’s a choice that Gilbert knew she’d have to make eventually. But for her, the turning point came in 2008, when her beloved aunt, Ronnie, her mother’s sister, told the family that she, too, had an aggressive form of breast cancer. She passed away barely three months later.

“It was a hard death,” says Gilbert. “Sometime shortly thereafter I went on the warpath.”

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Rica’s story, one year later

In case you missed it, here’s the story that ran Monday in Life & Style:

Treatment over, blogger Rica Mendes looks ahead to the next chapter of life

Last October, Rica Mendes shared her fight against breast cancer in a monthlong series of blog posts on LoHud.com.

A year later, she is relieved to be cancer-free.

But the difficulties continue for Mendes, a 38-year-old single mother of two who lost her job and is battling with insurance companies as she wades through piles of unpaid bills.

Recently she learned that the hospital where she was treated has a “financial aid department,” but that you need to apply for Medicaid and be turned down before they’ll even consider your case.

The “financial ramifications” of being a cancer patient are clearly among her greatest challenges, says Mendes.

“COBRA alone is so outrageous right now, it’s higher than my mortgage,” she says. “And God help me if I tried to get private insurance.”

As if all that weren’t enough, Mendes’ mother was also diagnosed recently with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy two weeks ago and will need six weeks of radiation. Mendes is BRCA positive, which means she has a genetic predisposition to the disease, but her mother is not. “Her cancer can’t be any more different than mine,” says Mendes. “That’s how wacky this disease is.” Her mother’s prognosis, she adds, is excellent.

Mendes’ own life changed abruptly last year, just a month after her 37th birthday.

In July, she learned from a mammogram that she had invasive early-stage breast cancer, then found out she had the gene. In August 2011, she had a double mastectomy. In September, she started four months of chemotherapy. In February, her chest expanders were replaced with breast implants.

Her last surgical procedure was in May, when she had her nipples reconstructed. This past July, doctors finally said she could resume exercising.

For Mendes, who’d been an avid cyclist — and who remains a leader in Livestrong, the cancer-support organization founded by Lance Armstrong — getting active again has done wonders for her spirit.

She started by canoeing around nearby Lake Kitchawan every morning, and this summer, she took part in an adventure camp for cancer survivors, overcoming her fear of heights as she went rock climbing in the Colorado Rockies.

Her body is slowly springing back, too. Mendes lost her hair during chemotherapy — in one of her video posts last October, she cried as she held a clump of hair that came out on camera — but now she’s got a head full of curls.

“I look like a really sad Little Orphan Annie,” she says with a laugh. “If it was 1978, I’d be fine.”

It’s her ability to laugh at herself that’s helped pull her though, says Mendes. Welcoming her “twins” — the new breast implants — with a “booby shower” at her home this spring is a case in point, she says.

“I am very grateful for my sense of humor, as macabre and twisted as it is.”

She’s also gained perspective, she says, and has, quite literally, taken time to smell the roses she planted in the garden outside her South Salem home. Recently she put up a hammock, where she relaxes with a cocktail and does absolutely nothing.

While her previous job as Web operations manager for a Connecticut start-up had provided a steady income, it also meant she had to deal with crises late into the night, says Mendes.

Life was becoming increasingly hectic.

“Cancer is one of those things where, not only does it grab you by the shoulders and slap you across the face and say, ‘Hi, I’m here,’ but when you’ve survived it and go back into real life — unless your job was your passion and you were enjoying everything about your life prior to that — you just sit back and say, ‘Why did I put myself through this for so many years?’” she says. “Or ‘Why do I put with this BS?’”

These days, she is working as a temp and hoping to be offered a job that is permanent. Her friends at Livestrong have remained a strong support system, she says. And it’s very likely another adventure is in the works.

“In a sense I feel like nothing is stopping me now except for what’s in my own head,” she says.

What about women who find themselves newly diagnosed with breast cancer?

Don’t hide, urges Mendes.

“Reach out to an organization like Livestrong, because if you keep it pent up, if you don’t get it off your chest — even if you’ve been the biggest introvert your entire life — it’s going to eat at you,” she says.

“You’ve already got cancer eating you alive. Why let stress and emotion do it too?”

To read more, go to LoHud.com/breastcancer, where you will find links to Mendes’ other blogs.

A Survivor’s Story and more breast cancer awareness coverage

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and tomorrow, The Journal News begins its annual special coverage of this important topic with a story  about South Salem’s Rica Mendes, who blogged about her personal struggle with the disease for us last year.

Reporter Linda Lombroso writes a moving update on Rica’s condition: It’s one you won’t want to miss. And we’ll continue to post new information here all month.

But in the meantime, we thought we’d share links to stories we’ve published in the past, which have plenty of useful information – whether you’re a survivor yourself or know someone with the illness.

Beyond breast cancer: Rica Mendes continues to battle, and share, her courageous story.

Helping Hands: The best advice for what to do – and what not to do – comes from those battling breast cancer themselves.

Young women with breast cancer face unique challenges.

Breast cancer myth busters: There are a lot of misconceptions about breast cancer. Arm yourself with facts.

Fighting breast cancer in a down economy: A safety net exists in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam.

 

Beyond breast cancer: Rica Mendes continues to battle, and share, her courageous story

Reporter Linda Lombroso wrote this story on our blogger, Rica Mendes, for the Sunday Life section on Nov. 20, 2011:

Every Sunday, we write about residents we call “rock stars,” but few of them are actually musicians — they are just local people who are in the spotlight, or who are deserving of some positive attention.

Rica Mendes just might be our first overnight sensation.

We met her, in late September, getting fitted for a wig at the American Cancer Society’s headquarters in White Plains. At 37, the divorced mother of two from South Salem had recently undergone a double mastectomy and was preparing for the eventual day when chemotherapy would claim her long hair.

Journal News photographer Xavier Mascareñas — who was at the cancer society on an assignment to shoot low-cost resources for breast-cancer patients — struck up a conversation with Mendes, who was there to select a free wig. Mascareñas asked if he could take her photograph. She agreed, and gave him her telephone number, too. We called her to follow up, and discovered she was a blogger and leader for LiveStrong, the cancer-advocacy foundation created by athlete Lance Armstrong.

We were looking for someone to blog for us during October, as part of our coverage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and asked Mendes, who jumped at the opportunity.

The blog, which launched just days later, quickly became a hit with readers. In her chatty, no-holds-barred style, Mendes reported on her personal struggle, chronicling everything from her grueling chemotherapy treatments to the shock of losing clumps of her hair — which she captured, on camera, during one of her many video-diary posts.

“I’ve always been a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of person,” she says.

As tough as it must have been for Mendes, her frankness made us admire her even more — and her courage was inspiring to our readers, many of whom wrote to tell us so. After Mendes was bald, in mid-October, she continued to post video blogs staring straight into the camera.

In this information age, she says, people deserve to see and hear the truth.

“I’m bald, there’s no hiding that. And I’ve got cancer, it’s hard to hide that,” she says. “It takes a lot more strength and restraint not to talk about it.”

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Survivor story: Maria Souto of South Nyack

Peter D. Kramer wrote this profile of South Nyack survivor Maria Souto for the Sunday Life section on Oct. 23, 2011:

Maria Souto knew better.

The daughter of nurses, Souto knew what to look for — and feel for — when it came to breast self-exams. “I had medical training, so I did my own exams and I felt something, but I ignored it for a month or two,” says Souto.

That was 13 years ago and she was living in Germantown, Md. She is now coordinator of communicable disease for Rockland County’s Department of Health and lives in South Nyack.

Maria Souto, who survived breast cancer, at her South Nyack home. (Xavier Mascareñas/The Journal News)

“I thought it might be a cyst or related to my period,” Souto says. “I had ignored it, thinking ‘It’s going to go away.’ But then I realized it wasn’t going away and I woke up one day and I had a black-and-blue mark. People usually say you have no symptoms, but I guess it was an opening for me to go see the doctor.”

Souto’s surgeon should have known better.

When a mammogram showed something, a biopsy was ordered, but it came back negative. “I think the first surgeon I used just didn’t go in properly,” Souto says. “He went in a different way and never reached the cancerous cells.”

It was February 1998.

Cleared by the biopsy, she went on with her life, working at Georgetown University Hospital.

Months later, bruising again, Souto had another mammogram, another biopsy, a different surgeon. “One of the doctors I worked with was my primary care, so my stuff would come through there and the girls would let me look and make sure everything was fine,” she says. “One day, one of the nurses said ‘Maria, your pathology report is back.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ And I looked at it and I cursed out loud. And the nurse said, ‘What?’ And I said ‘I have breast cancer.'”

It was May 1998. Souto had just turned 40. She had stage 2 breast cancer, with one lymph node — the one closest to the breast — positive for cancer.

She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.

Now, Souto has a peace about her, as if being in her presence might possibly lower your blood pressure. She speaks softly, deliberately. Here are 10 things Maria Souto took away from her fight with breast cancer.

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Helping Hands: The best advice for what to do — and not to do — comes from those battling breast cancer themselves

Journal News editor Karen Croke reported on the best ways to help loved ones when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer, as part of our ongoing coverage for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s the story as it appeared in print on Oct. 23:

“What can I do for you?”

Sounds exactly like what a cancer patient would want to hear, doesn’t it? Turns out, these are the last words those battling breast cancer want to hear come out of the mouths of well-intentioned friends and family.

“This sounds terrible, but it was a little annoying when someone would say, ‘what can I do for you?,’ ” says Stacey Sypko of Patterson. The 45-year-old mom of two boys, now 5 and 7, was diagnosed in May 2009.

(Photo illustration by Xavier Mascareñas / The Journal News )

What would have helped, she says, is friends taking a can-do attitude rather than hanging back and waiting for guidance.

“If you want to do something, cook something and drop it off — great. But don’t make me tell you how to help me. It’s hard to ask for help actually.”

It can be as equally difficult for those supporting a loved one with breast cancer, and that’s a large group. According to the American Cancer Society, three out of every four American families will have at least one family member diagnosed with cancer. And most of us are confused about what to say, what to do, and how to help.

Those battling breast cancer have the best advice: Offer to cook meals, walk the dog, help with child care or give rides to treatment, they say. Be specific; saying “let me know if you need anything” won’t do much good if a person is shy about asking for help.

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My Story Part IV: Time Flies When You Have Cancer

When in doubt, tell the truth. – Mark Twain

After a couple of hours, it was setting in that I really had cancer. While I can keep secrets that could ruin surprises for friends, I’ve never been very good at keeping secrets about myself. I’ve always been an open book. I have friends who have found that trait to be very off-putting, but the fact is that’s how I am. I wear my heart on my sleeve.

As a LIVESTRONG Leader, it’s been drilled into my head that cancer is nothing to be ashamed of – there should be no stigma attached. I’ve been open about so many things in my blog, and I felt that this should be no different. So I wasn’t. I wrote a blog about it. I passed it onto a friend at LIVESTRONG Headquarters who asked me if she could share it with the staff and others. I agreed. And it was shared. Now, it was out there. If I went into denial, there’d be others to remind me. And my obligation of the cured was starting early. I was going to share my story. I was going to make this real, not wrapped up in a pink ribbon with glamorous photos. I’d tell it like it is.

Within hours, I’d received dozens of Facebook messages, Tweets, emails and other notes of support from friends all over the world. And, within those same hours, I was being scheduled for test after test. My calendar was out of control. I had just started a new part-time job working for Danny’s Cycles, I had my full-time job, I was just starting up my Mary Kay business again, and now I have doctor’s appointments, scans, consultations, more doctors than I ever anticipated knowing in a lifetime. And I still hadn’t told my parents and my children.

Yes, I know. How selfishly stupid was I for not telling my parents and children before blogging about it? But, you see, neither they, nor their contacts, read my blog or follow LIVESTRONG.org. But, I had to do it. At least, I knew I had to tell my children. I didn’t want to tell my parents. It’s the ugly truth, but the fact is that I didn’t want to deal with their insanity, specifically, my mother’s. Flashes of when I was delivering my daughter, and her criticism that I’d chosen to have an epidural, and the fact that she denied my request to bring my son back in time to cut the umbilical cord kept running through my head. The reality was that she would drive me insane with judgements and her opinions of what my choices were, and I didn’t want to deal with it. I asked my cousin to tell them, but she chose not to do it.

So, I picked up the phone and told my dad, who told my mother. And then I arranged dinner with the kids at DiNardo’s Ristorante in Pound Ridge, NY.

Tell the children the truth. – Bob Marley

At an early age, it became painfully obvious that adults had a despicable knack for hiding the truth, especially the uglier truth, from children to “protect” them. What those adults don’t understand is that such consipiracy hurts the children, sometimes scarring them for life, and has less to do with the well-being of the children, but avoiding having to figure out how to explain difficult things. It’s to placate the adults, not benefit the children. My grandmother died in 1980. I was to be at the funeral, with my cousin, so we could say goodbye to her. She had fought cancer, and her time ran out. She was the most revered adult I had in my life. She was everything to me. I distrusted other adults as it was, and, at her funeral, that distrust was confirmed. Someone outside the family decided that it was inappropriate for my cousin and me to be at the service, so she tricked us into going to a classroom upstairs in the facility and locked us in for the duration of the funeral. Our parents didn’t realize this had happened, and no one came to get us until after the service was over. We missed everything. We never got the chance to grieve, to see her casket, to share our loss, etc. We missed it all. And neither of us have gotten past that.

I wasn’t going to lock my children in a closet. I wasn’t going to do to them what was done to me.

The good news is, as I’d been a LIVESTRONG Leader for a couple of years, they had plenty of exposure to what cancer is, survivorship, etc. My son had gone to the LIVESTRONG Challenge in Austin the year before, so he’d seen, hands on, how many make it through the other side. I just had to convince them that I’d be one of the many collecting the yellow rose with the “I Am a Survivor” bib on my back, and they wouldn’t have to wear the bibs that read, “In Memory Of.”

Once dinner was ordered, we all sat down, and I told the kids that I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. My son asked me if I was ok. My daughter’s eyes began to well up with tears and she hugged my right arm and pressed her face under my arm. I stroked her cheek and told her it was found really early and not to be worry. I told her that I was a little scared, but I was stronger than I was afraid. My son came over and hugged his sister and told her it would be ok. We described all the riders and runners we’d watched collecting their yellow roses as they crossed the LIVESTRONG Challenge finish lines, that this was caught early, and it would be alright.

I reminded her of the Arthur episode that the Lance Armstrong Foundation did called “The Great MacGrady,” (search for The Great MacGrady in the search box on PBS Kids to watch the episode online) where cancer was described as a weed in a flower garden that needed to be plucked out, and sometimes you had to use weed killer to make sure it never comes back. I told her that in October, when we went to Austin, she’d see hundreds of cancer survivors and that I’d be joining them. I explained to both kids that I’d be having the surgery while they were at camp, but that I’d let the camp know all about it and make sure that if they needed to call to make sure that I was ok, they could. (Note: The camp didn’t exactly comply – I had to fight them to let that happen, as well as other issues related to the cancer that I should not have had to explain more than once, let alone fight repeatedly.)

By the end of the evening, though I can’t say we were “alright,” the information was given, it was being processed, and it was clear we were fighting this battle as a family. My son was going to be “Man of the House” and agreed to keep his nose clean and do what he had to do. My daughter was going to be my “Lady in Waiting,” and pitch in where she could, and I was going to fight like hell.

Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm. – Marcus Garvey

It’s remarkable how much stuff has to get done in such little time when your diagnosis comes in. My thumbs could not keep up with all of the appointments I had to make. I had to meet with a breast surgeon. I had to go to radiology. I had to get an MRI. I had to get my family to give me the family cancer history once more. Sure enough, there was a pattern on my father’s side, which meant I had to meet with the geneticist. I had to meet with an oncologist. I had to solve the conflict in the Middle East. All in, what seemed to be, a matter of days. At the same time, I was trying to make sure that I was seeing the best practitioners that I could. And that insurance would cover it. And, oh yes, try and work.

The following 2 weeks were filled with scans, tests, running all over the Stamford area from the Tully Health Center to the Stamford Hospital to the Darien Tully Center.

A quick detour about that trip. If there is one thing that I have taken away from my involvement with LIVESTRONG it is to fight like it’s nobody’s business (because it’s not) when it comes to getting what you need. You know your body better than anyone and it’s your cancer, not theirs. Even the best health professionals miss things and you, and only you, know when something is “off.” They may be able to figure out what it is, but unless you are a clinical hypochondriac, follow your instincts when something doesn’t feel right or the doctor is really not in the right. I keep kosher, which means that I don’t eat shellfish. That being said, the one time that I accidentally ate a dish with shrimp in it, and it was the entire bowl and the shrimp wasn’t revealed until the very end, I had an allergic reaction. It wasn’t lethal, but was uncomfortable. My lips and my throat swelled. Not to the point that I was in respiratory distress, but clearly, I needed to avoid shellfish. However, I’d had several MRIs using the standard dyes. As a precaution, however, my doctor decided to prescribe me steroids.

Now, I already take steroids for my under-performing adrenal system. So these are additional steroids. CVS on High Ridge Road in Stamford, gawd bless ’em, has screwed up every single prescription I’ve ever called into them. This was no exception. The instructions given to me did not match what was in the bottle. however, this wasn’t discovered until I showed up for the MRI. So I had taken less of this prescribed steroid than desired, however, I was still taken steroids additionally. Not to mention the fact that I’d never had an issue with the MRI dyes before. They told me it shouldn’t be an issue, and I went to the back to change. Bear in mind, that I has taken enough steroids to be in “‘Roid Rage State.”

As soon as I was ready for my MRI, I was told my a nurse that the radiologist decided that since I hadn’t taken the steroids as prescribed (inferring that I had done something wrong), that they wouldn’t do my MRI that day. Here’s the problem: Tests like the MRI are just a domino in the scheme of things. When one test doesn’t get done, then the rest of the dominoes fall and you have to start all over again. I had pending appointments out of state with experts, I had a string of follow up appointments, and a deadline by which the surgery could happen before the kids came home. This was not acceptable and I asked to speak to the radiologist. I offered to sign waivers. I pointed to my past records of MRIs with no problems. The nurse told me the radiologist would come out to speak to me. I got on the phone with the Nurse Navigator, my Primary Care Physician, my OB/Gyn, telling them what was happening and to get the radiologist on board. The nurse returned, and I was in full out rage state. She said that the radiologist left. At which point I blew my gasket. I mean, I lost it and I started screaming at the nurse to get this done, turn her back around, etc. I asked where the radiologist was going, and she made the mistake of telling me, “Stamford Hospital.” I said, “Thank you,” got changed and into my car and high-tailed it down I-95 (miracle I didn’t get pulled over!) and parked at the hospital.

Fortunately, my aunt had been a Lab Supervisor at the hospital for years, so I know my way around the bottom floors and backways of Stamford Hospital pretty well. As I was sure the Darien Tully staff had alerted Stamford Hospital that a roided up lunatic was en route and to expect a large, pumped up green lady with shredded clothing to charge through the halls, I decided to take every backway that I knew down to the basement level without being seen by security. It worked. A little patience and a smile, and I was inside, past the security doors. Wouldn’t you know, the first door I stumbled upon was the Head of Radiology’s office.

I charged in, smiled, as the gentleman was on the phone. He looked up, nodded at me, and indicated that I should have a seat. As he was on the phone, he looked at me up and down, nodded again, and said, “I’ve got it.” Yes, indeed, Darien had alerted Stamford about me. He got off the phone and asked, “How can I help you?” As calmly as I could, I explained what happened, and that the test had to happen today because several key appointments were contingent on the MRI results being turned over within 24 hours. I explained that I know my body, what I can and cannot tolerate, and that it was completely unprofessional and wrong for the radiologist to hide behind her nurses and not speak with me directly. He nodded his head in agreement and said, “Let me see what I can do,” and he left the office telling me to stay put. I was 100% certain that the men with the butterfly nets were on their way.

Instead, his assistant, who looks a little scared, comes in and explains that the doctor has run out to the parking lot to physically stop the top breast radiologist from leaving to come back and to perform the MRI at the Tully Center in Stamford. She asked me to hold tight, breath, and relax. She understood, as did her boss. Sure enough, the doctor returns and tells me to head over to the Tully Center for the MRI. And that’s how I got the MRI done.

Thanks goodness, the rest of the tests did not require such drastic means. In fact, though they were crammed into the few hours of the day like sardines, the tests went on as planned. Except for one…

Chemo Day 27: Amazing what some swelling can do…

Chemo is delayed even further. Am I going to be admitted to the hospital or not? Magic Eight Ball anyone?
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/0HFXmBDW7mg" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

(Can you tell I’m still getting used to wigs?)

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:

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