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

Chemo Day 25: Westchester Region of Hadassah “Hand of Healing Luncheon”

Attending the Westchester Region of Hadassah “Hand of Healing” Luncheon was touching, with a wonderful surprise.

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I’m Living Strong.

When my oncologist, Dr. Isadore Tepler, told me that my Oncotype test indicated that I scored a 21, my heart sunk… The good news was that the Taxotere-Cytoxen combination meant very few side effects. In fact, there was only one guaranteed side effect: Absolute hair loss. Complete baldness. I’d be a hairless, 2-legged, tail-less cat.

I took things into my own hands this weekend at the LIVESTRONG Challenge in Austin, TX. Breast cancer may have taken my breasts, but it’s not taking my hair.

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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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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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Conversation on Breast Cancer with Support Connection

Today at noon, Heather Salerno led a live discussion with Andrea Karl, a counselor with Support Connection in Yorktown, a nonprofit group that offers services for those with breast and ovarian cancer.

Here’s a replay of the chat, which talks about what kinds of services the group offers, and information about how attending a support group can help.