Survivor Story: Kelly Thomas of Nyack

Pete Kramer wrote this profile of Nyack’s Kelly Thomas for the Sunday Life section on Oct. 16, 2011:

Kelly Thomas certainly didn’t expect breast cancer at 31.

“It doesn’t run in my family,” says the 33-year-old Nyack resident. “Some women expect to get it. Their grandmother had it, their mother had it, their aunt had it. I had no knowledge of it. I knew about every other cancer because my father had colon cancer, then the liver, then the lungs. I knew all the other cancers except for breast cancer.”

Still, she knew something dark was in the air in January 2010: It was in the cards.

Kelly Thomas of Nyack, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in her 30s, is photographed Sept. 20, 2011 in the Harrison studio. ( Tania Savayan / The Journal News

(Photo by Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

Thomas, who grew up in Ardsley, does her own tarot-card readings, and she kept seeing a card of foreboding.

“The tower card is like fast, upheavel, destruction, disaster. It could be divorce, it could be death when accompanied with other cards. It’s just always a dark, scary card, and I kept getting it over and over.”

She thought her new relationship was in peril.

It turned out it was her life that was in the balance and that her new boyfriend at the time — who had beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma years before — would be a godsend, the person who first found the lump in Thomas’ breast and who helped her through her treatment and much of her recovery.

She had both breasts and a lymph node removed and underwent chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery. The cancer has not recurred in Thomas’ regular follow-up exams.

If Thomas had the tower card and cancer, she also had key people — and a positive perspective — that made it bearable. After the jump, 10 more things about Kelly Thomas’ cancer story that fit that description:

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Young women with breast cancer face unique challenges

Journal News reporter Heather Salerno reported on the many other obstacles that face women under 40 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:

In June 2007, just a month after being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, Cortlandt Manor’s Sue Andersen was sitting poolside in Las Vegas at her best friend’s bachelorette party.

Only 37 and the mother of two small children, Andersen had lost all of her hair during her first two rounds of chemotherapy. But she felt well enough to make the trip, and the celebration allowed her to briefly take her mind off her illness.

So on one 100-degree day, Andersen ditched her wig back in the hotel room and wrapped a bandanna around her bald head. To show their support, her group of pals donned scarves, too, a move that attracted some attention around the pool.

Breast cancer survivors, from left, Lauren Novotny of Dobbs Ferry, Kelly Thomas of Nyack, Sue Andersen of Cortlandt Manor and Pam Tole of Yorktown. All were diagnosed with the illness in their 30s. ( Xavier Mascareñas / The Journal News)

Breast cancer survivors, from left, Lauren Novotny of Dobbs Ferry, Kelly Thomas of Nyack, Sue Andersen of Cortlandt Manor and Pam Tole of Yorktown. All were diagnosed with the illness in their 30s. ( Xavier Mascareñas / The Journal News)

“The guys at the bar said, ‘What’s up with the bandanna?’ And my friends said, ‘Sue has breast cancer,’” recalls Andersen. “They said, ‘Come on, what’s the real story?’ They didn’t believe us because I was too young.”

Unfortunately, that perception — young women don’t get breast cancer — is all too common. The disease is still relatively rare among those in their teens, 20s or 30s: Most cases are in women over 50, with a median age of 61. But the numbers are significant.

About 5 percent to 6 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in women under 40 in the United States. And there are more than 250,000 breast cancer survivors in this country who were diagnosed at age 40 and under, according to the Young Survival Coalition and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Advocacy Alliance. Even more alarming — when compared to those in their 50s and beyond, young women typically have a more aggressive form of the disease and a lower survival rate.

And while getting breast cancer is devastating at any age, younger women face a number of unique obstacles that compound an already heartbreaking diagnosis.

Those who are single wonder how to bring the “C-word” up on a date, or how they’ll pay their bills if they take time off work to recover. Young mothers are dealing with cancer while caring for their little ones — and praying that their children won’t have to grow up without them. And all face a possible loss of fertility, prompting fears that they may never have biological children, or be able to add to their family.

Not to mention, right from the start, they’re fighting a stereotype — one that can actually kill them. Because having breast cancer is so inconceivable to them, young women are less likely to seek medical attention right away. And if they do, doctors sometimes tell them to wait and watch a lump. Both approaches can lead to a later diagnosis, and for some, an earlier death.

“If you find something which is abnormal or something in the breast that you did not feel before, make sure you show it to a physician and don’t let him dismiss it,” says Dr. Abraham Mittelman, a medical oncologist with Northern Westchester Hospital and Phelps Memorial Hospital Center. “Pursue it,” he says, “until you have an answer.”

We wanted to get some more information out there about this particular group of breast cancer survivors, who face some very different concerns from their older counterparts. Here are four of the biggest challenges that young women encounter as they battle this life-changing disease.

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Reflections on Survivor Stories: Geri Moran, Arnold Roufa & Ted Brown

When you make it to the “other side,” you feel the need to grab as many others’ hands as you can who are also fighting the disease and take them with you.

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Battling Breast Cancer: Conversation with Dr. Andrew Ashikari

Dr. Andrew Ashikari, a surgical oncologist affiliated with the Ashikari Breast Center at Hudson Valley Hospital Center in Cortlandt and the Ashikari Breast Center in the Dobbs Ferry Pavilion of St. John’s Riverside Hospital, will discuss some common misconceptions about breast cancer, prevention and treatment today at noon.

Join the conversation via CoverItLive:

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My Story Part III: There’s no such thing as a free lunch

It was as though I were floating in space as soon as the word, “Cancer,” filtered through my ear drum. All senses suspend. Appendages go numb. Lips feel fuzzy. Time stops.

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Chemo Day 10: Style and Grace

Part 1:
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Part 2:
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Live Chat on Facebook Now: Low-Cost Treatments for Breast Cancer

On our the LoHud facebook page: We’re discussing free and low-cost services available locally — including for breast-cancer screening, treatment and support — with these experts:

Lauren Moore and Pei-Fang Fang, both with the American Cancer Society’s Patient Service Center in White Plains

Pamela Ferrari, of Open Door Family Medical Centers

Katie Shields, a nurse with Cancer Support Team in Mamaroneck, which offers free services to residents of lower Westchester.

Come on over and ask questions: