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Debby Madiraca

At 7½ months pregnant, Debby Madiraca, 34, was looking forward to a blissful time in her life. As she put on her sports bra one day, she felt a lump in her breast.

“I assumed it was a clogged milk duct,” she says. “I went to my obstetrician and she thought it was a cyst, but wanted me to get an ultrasound to be on the safe side.”

It turned out to be cancer that was in her breast and one of her lymph nodes.

“I was terrified,” says the Haddon Township resident. “I was crying. I said, ‘Am I going to die?’ I always thought cancer equaled death. I actually lost my very close friend to lung cancer last year within six weeks of her diagnosis. I thought that was going to be me – I wasn’t going to be able to raise my daughter. I was scared for the baby.”

Assured by her doctors that she would have a tough road ahead for treatment, but she would ultimately beat it, Madiraca was determined to move forward. The first step was delivering her baby right away.

“I was about 36½ weeks, and the doctors said that she was a good size and I could deliver her,” Madiraca recalls. “It all happened so fast. Within two weeks of finding out I had cancer I delivered Amelia on July 30. She was healthy, but she had to go into the NICU for 10 days because she wasn’t breathing the right way or eating the way she was supposed to.

“I was devastated, and I was supposed to start chemo the following week. Between going into the NICU to visit her twice a day and going to get all these tests done, I was pretty much a zombie, just going through the motions.”

A PET scan found abnormalities, which meant the cancer had spread to her liver and her cancer was stage 4.

“My oncologist assured me I was still going to live, it just meant they had to change the way they were going to treat it,” she says. “I had the port for the chemo put in the same day I had the liver biopsy done, and that same day Amelia was released from the NICU. That was a pretty exhausting but happy day, because I finally had my baby home.”

For now, Madiraca has lost her hair and is experiencing some side effects from the chemotherapy. “I have fatigue but I don’t know if that’s due to having a newborn baby at home or from the chemo,” she admits with a laugh.

Madiraca is convinced her daughter saved her life. “The tumor was estrogen fed, so being pregnant definitely sped up the growth of the tumor,” she explains. “I was going to get breast cancer at some point in my life. The pregnancy brought it on more fiercely and caused it to become prominent. I’m 34 years old, and there’s no history of breast cancer in my family. I never would have done a self-exam otherwise. Had it not been for the pregnancy, I wouldn’t have found it.”

 

Kathy Rozanski

In November 2007, Kathy Rozanski’s mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. The same day her mother came home from having a lumpectomy, Rozanski went for her own scheduled mammogram.

“As I sat in the waiting room, I read a poster stating that one in eight women would be diagnosed with breast cancer,” the Glassboro resident remembers. “My mom was that one in eight person, I thought. I got called back after my mammogram because they found something suspicious. They ordered a needle biopsy and four days later, two months after my mom was diagnosed, I heard the words I never thought I would have to hear: ‘Kathy, you have breast cancer.’

“I was 47 years old, a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter, and I was scared to death. Seven weeks later I had a double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction. I had 20 rounds of chemotherapy and 26 consecutive days of radiation treatments. I thought this was everything I needed to do to eradicate this disease. I suffered from radiation burns and missed three months of work. I lost my breasts, my hair, my eyebrows and my eyelashes. What I didn’t lose was my faith, my spirit and my yearning to be alive.

“I had an 11-year-old son, and I needed to be strong. I was not going to let breast cancer get the best of me. I had a group of family and friends who gave me love, help and support. I had a positive attitude – cancer was messing with the wrong person. In January of 2013, I celebrated my five years cancer-free.”

Rozanski had genetic testing that determined that she was not a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation. (The gene mutation that Angelina Jolie carries, which led her to have a preventive double mastectomy.) “It was just ironic that my mother and I both had breast cancer,” she says.

Unfortunatley, Rozanski’s jubilance was short-lived. This past March, she had dizziness and a terrible headache and thought she had vertigo. Tests revealed that she had a brain tumor.

“The tumor was successfully removed, followed by CyberKnife radiation, which was also successful,” she says. “But a CAT scan showed a spot on my lung. I am currently receiving two types of chemotherapy. I am a stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patient, and I am still going to fight with a positive attitude.”

Giving her motivation every day is a stuffed owl (she works at Rowan University, where an owl is the mascot) that her mother gave her. “It says ‘strong and fierce,’ and that’s what she wants me to be,” says Rozanski.

 

Joan Kurkian

After Joan Kurkian was first diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2010 at the age of 64, her husband Edward, a retired principal of Collingswood Middle School, stood by her side as she underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. The couple had relocated from Collingswood to Bonita Springs, Fla, to enjoy retirement.

“Suddenly in August of 2010, my husband fell,” she says. The fall caused a brain stem injury and Edward passed away. “He was a very wonderful man. We had been married 23 years. It was a shock. I had to proceed with my life, while still healing from the cancer and handle subsequent legal and financial situations.”

In March of 2012, Kurkian moved back to Cherry Hill to be closer to friends and family. During a routine mammogram, doctors discovered that her cancer had returned in the same breast. Having had radiation already, her best option was a mastectomy.

“I said, ‘No woman should have to continue to go through this. Please take them both off,’” she recalls. “On May 1, they removed both my breasts in addition to breast reconstruction. During the nine-and-a-half hour surgery, the doctors not only found the original DCIS, but they found another piece of tissue that was stage 1 in the diagnosed breast, and pre-cancerous cells in the good breast, which had not shown up in the mammogram.

“I made sure I stayed positive – that’s the most important thing. Prior to my double mastectomy, my spiritual group (MSIA) girlfriends gave me a ‘bye bye boobies’ party and when I walked in, there were beautiful colorful polka-dot bras hanging from the chandelier, cupcakes with candy nipples on the top of them, Victoria’s Secret gift cards, prizes for the smallest and largest bra size, wonderful food, champagne flowing, and dancing. We danced to Gloria Gaynor’s song ‘I Will Survive.’ That positive, uplifting, fun-filled experience assisted me to walk through this bump in the road with more ease and grace and turned a lemon into lemonade.

“I did a lot of journaling and meditation, and I made sure I walked because you also want to maintain all your other functions. Presently, I take yoga classes, dance often, laugh a lot and choose to surround myself with positive, supportive, uplifting friends. I eat well, drink lots of water and cut out sugar, dairy and wheat. I believe your attitude is so important and living each day to the fullest is my mantra. I feel very blessed and am aware that we are all here to help others go through their process and pay it forward.”

 

Donna Forman

While visiting her daughter who was studying in Israel, Donna Forman discovered a lump in her right breast. The date was April 1, 2010 – April Fool’s Day.

“It was rather large to the touch, and I had a gut feeling it wasn’t going to be a good thing,” she recalls. “When I got home, I went in for a mammogram and diagnostic ultrasound on a Friday. By the next Monday I met with a breast surgeon, and that Thursday I had surgery – a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy.”

The Cherry Hill mom learned she had a 4.5-centimeter mass that was diagnosed as stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma.

“My doctor got it all but because of the size of my mass, my age (48 at the time) and the fact that it was stage 2, she definitely wanted me to follow up with an oncologist. She had a way of making me feel like everything was going to be okay. It was going to be a long haul, a year or so of treatment, and yes, it’s horrible and my world was turned upside down, but she had such a calming effect.”

Forman had six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a year of Herceptin therapy. “It’s like chemo but without the side effects,” she explains. “I’m the first to admit I’m a little bit vain and high maintenance when it comes to my overall appearance, and it was really hard to grapple with losing my hair. You just find the strength and determination. You put yourself in that automatic-pilot mode and just do it.”

Her three teenage daughters gave Forman the motivation to fight her battle. “I wanted to be a strong role model and inspiration for them,” she says. “I wanted to take this on and still be the supermom I always tried to be. One of the harder things was acknowledging that I couldn’t do everything I was used to.”

Forman’s additional challenge was helping her youngest daughter, Sydney, understand what was happening to her mother. “She is diagnosed with developmental delays, is cognitively impaired and has her own challenges,” Forman says. “She understood that Mommy was sick, and I couldn’t do as much for her as before.

“Everybody supported me. I think that was the most beautiful thing. Whenever you go through something like this, as horrible as it is, there are so many beautiful lessons you learn. I realized how fortunate and blessed I was to have such wonderful support between my family and friends. I’m not one to ask. They just knew the things that would make this easier for me, and that was huge.”

 

Lorelei McGlade

Diagnosed with cancer at the age of 42, Lorelei McGlade had the added challenge of caring for her two toddlers: Ciera who was 4 at the time, and Delaney, who was 3.

“I went for my annual mammogram, and every year I get a letter in the mail a week later saying they found something, to come back and redo the films,” she says of her test back in 2005. “So when I got it again that year, it didn’t seem abnormal.”

This time, there really was cause for concern, and McGlade was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had chemo for six months and then got a bilateral mastectomy,” she recalls. “It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of complications. I was allergic to the chemo, and when my hair fell out it was traumatic. But it’s just hair – it grows back.

“My doctor told me the first thing I should do was tell my children, because they will know that something is different or changing, and they are going to think it was something they did. I told them Mommy was a little sick, and I had to take a medicine that’s going to make me look different. My little one was sitting there with her fingers in her mouth holding her blankie and just looking at me. My 4-year-old said, ‘What do you mean? What kind of sick? How are you going to look different?’

“I told her I had something called breast cancer, and I have to take this medicine called chemo. When I take that stuff, it’s going to make me sick sometimes and my hair is going to start falling out. I said I’m going to be bald like my neighbor George. But I won’t look like George because I’m going to wear a wig when I go to work. I pulled it out and asked the girls if they wanted to try it on.

“My daughter said, ‘Is it something we did?’ The doctor knew she was going to say that. I told her no, you had nothing to do with it; it’s just something I had inside of me that came out. It’s going to be a while that I’m going to be sick, but then I’m going to be okay. I’ll be here if you ever need anything and don’t be afraid.”

McGlade’s doctor also warned her that her children would take their cues from her. “I’m a very strong and happy person, so on the days when I wasn’t feeling well, I tried to hide it from them. I walked around the house without my wig so they could see that was normal. They realized it was just me, Mom. But now, eight years out, I feel really good.”

 

Gloria Fitzgerald

Having lost her mother and aunt to breast cancer, Gloria Fitzgerald, 69, was very careful to keep up with her routine mammograms. In 2004, she discovered that she, too, had the disease.

“I was absolutely shocked,” she admits. “What made me think by doing mammography I wasn’t going to get cancer, I don’t know. Because of my history, I had a bilateral mastectomy. At the same time, I had reconstructive surgery, which was incredibly painful every time they put the saline in to expand for the implant.”

Fitzgerald, from Collingswood, discovered that she had suffered nerve damage during her surgery, which gave her pain every day. “There were days at work when I would just sit at my desk and cry, the pain was so bad,” she says. “I had the implants taken out so the pain is less now. I don’t concern myself with padded bras, because putting a bra on puts pressure on that nerve. It’s easier for me with nothing.”

Looking stylish in suit jackets, Fitzgerald doesn’t worry about life without breasts. “I didn’t have large breasts to begin with, so it’s not like I’m missing a whole lot,” she says. “It’s a non-issue for me. Do I regret having the mastectomy? Only because of the pain, not because of the loss of the breasts. Other than the pain every day, I feel very lucky because in the past, women died from this. I want to be here for my kids and my grandkids.”

October 2013
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