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Survivor Stories & Testimonials

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"Silver Linings: Finding the Positive After Breast Cancer"

Edel Blumberg
If “attitude, not aptitude, determines altitude,” then thus is the story of me, Edel Blumberg. As a two-time colon cancer survivor, I feel I have garnished the attitude that allows me to speak from experience on the virtues of positive thinking. My story begins nearly at the end. I will explain, and hope that MY story will never become YOUR story.

The surgery, the chemotherapy treatments, the never-ending doctor appointments -- these hurdles were difficult to surmount. I am living, breathing proof that a positive outlook, a positive environment, and a positive attitude can lift you to heights one never believed possible. In 2003, at 47 years of age, I was diagnosed with a grade 3, 6 1/2-centimeter tumor in my colon. After removal of the tumor and a subsequent re-section, I embarked on what I believe to be the most difficult challenge I’ve ever faced: chemotherapy. A year of my life later, I was on my way to recovery. And, for the next three years, I was healthy, happy, and felt like I was over the ordeal. Until, once again, in 2006, I was diagnosed with another 6 1/2-centimeter tumor. The chemotherapy that followed surgery was twice as difficult as the previous treatment, and thus the mountain I had to climb became steeper. One thousand hours of treatment later, I had survived. Another year of my life was gone. Again, the power of positive thinking, along with a wonderful support system, helped me to endure. More years have passed. I feel fine, and hope -- very positively hope -- that I am on the path to full recovery. My prevailing “never say never” and “never quit” attitude helped get me here. Of course, I had some help from my medical team!

An ending has to have a beginning, and that’s where my story and my message really take shape. See, I was 13 when I was diagnosed with Colitis, 14 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease , and 15 when I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disorder. For the next 32 years I forged and lived a lie. I was afraid of my illness. Embarrassed by it, I hid the truth from my family, from my friends, and most importantly from me. Oh, I went for checkups and colonoscopies -- sometimes. Other times, I hoped it had gone away. I hoped I had seen the last of it. I was afraid of what the doctor’s might say. When I was a youth, I spent more time hiding in bathrooms and running away from my problem than confronting it. All the emotions confounded me. So, when I felt good I assumed my health problems were over, finished, gone! I stopped going for those annual checkups. I had my last colonoscopy four years before my cancer was discovered. My doctor told me the tumor probably had been in my body for a year to a year and a half. If I had kept up my checkups, if I had gone every year like someone with a chronic illness since 13 years of age was supposed to do, and if I hadn’t hidden from the truth, could I have prevented it from getting to where it eventually got? I believe so. You should believe so.

Testing is the best form of prevention. The colon cancer slogan is “Preventable, Treatable, Beatable.” How true that really is. I know. As I mentioned earlier, I speak from experience. One can never look back, for reaching back for yesterday can make you miss the tomorrows. But you can learn from past mistakes. My message is clear. I hope that the right attitude about testing, about checkups, about dealing with this kind of illness will ring loud and true. For as I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t want MY Story to become YOUR Story.

Cathi Calato
The day I spent three hours getting a mammogram, I knew something was not right. My mom had passed away from breast cancer when she was 51 years old, when I was only 21. Starting at age 30, and every year since, I’d had my “mammies” grammed. This time was very different. I already knew what the doctor was going to say to me, and I had made up my mind that I would fight until the end, no matter what the consequences. Lose my hair to chemo? So what? It’s just hair. It’ll grow back. Loose a breast? Heck, I’d had my kids years earlier and didn’t need to breast feed. (And I refuse to be defined as a woman based on whether or not I have breasts.) But lose my life, my family, and my friends? No way was I going to let that happen. In fact, I was about to find out what real love and friendship were all about. Not just from those near and dear to me, but from the many new friends I was on a path to meet.

Through the “Reach to Recovery” Program, I am able to reach out to those now in the same situation I was in twelve years ago. I can let my strength lift them up from that abyss of not knowing what the future will bring. We cancer survivors are all about the special bond that we have in this exclusive “cancer club” of which we’re members. Granted, we had no choice but to join, but we refuse to let it control our lives. Every day we have a choice about how to live that day and make it matter, and cancer cannot control that at all. Being a part of “Reach to Recovery” is my choice and my own therapy against this dreadful disease.

Karen Erbe
I was diagnosed with Stage II invasive breast cancer in the summer of '07, after a couple of biopsies and a lumpectomy all pointing to normal. It's a good thing it happened in stages like that for me - that way the final diagnosis came slowly.

One of the first people I met in the process of decision making about surgery and treatment was an American Cancer Society angel (Kevin) at St. Agnes who gave me information and a smiling, hopeful face to count on while I was in the hospital going through a board review.

After the devastating decision to have a mastectomy and chemotherapy and the foggy days after, I got a call from a Reach to Recovery volunteer in my area, Howard County. She told me her story and helped allay my fears about losing my breast and hair, and she explained the reconstruction process and what to expect. She even told me a funny story about burning her wig in the oven the first time she had it on! It was my first of many laughs along the journey. She gave me a physical view of the hope that I WOULD see the end of the dark tunnel.

I lost my breast, I lost my hair, but I never lost hope that it would get better, and it did. My last chemo treatment was December 14, 2007, and I immediately volunteered to become a Reach to Recovery volunteer. After the “aloneness” of facing breast cancer, and remembering that my RTR volunteer was really the only person who knew how I was feeling, I wanted to be able to help other women in that position feel a little more positive about this life altering event.

I have not been disappointed in this volunteer experience. As with most volunteer experiences I've been involved with, speaking with women newly diagnosed, afraid and alone in their thoughts I feel I could help them face breast cancer with some assurance that other women have been through that dark valley and are now on the light side of the mountain.

Cathy Brice Hirsch
I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in May of 2003, when I was 43 years old. I had two young daughters at home – my oldest was in fourth grade and my youngest was in second.

At first, I was overwhelmed with fear, particularly the fear that my daughters would have to grow up without me. Two of my friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer at about the age I was then. One had been lucky enough to be diagnosed so early that the only treatment she needed was surgery. The other one had died.

I immediately began educating myself about breast cancer, consulting with doctors, and planning my treatment. But despite all the questions I asked, and the information I received, I didn’t truly know what to expect. My doctors, my family, and my friends were supportive, but they had never been in my shoes. I felt completely alone. After my surgery, just a few days before I was scheduled to begin chemotherapy, I received a phone call from a Reach to Recovery volunteer. She had been diagnosed at the same stage as me, and had undergone the same surgery and the same course of chemo. She had been a breast cancer survivor for seven years. Talking with that volunteer lifted my spirits like nothing else could, because she had experienced what I was experiencing and had gotten through it. She became my beacon of hope. I realized that I really could win my battle against breast cancer – someone else in the same situation as me had done it!

Once I finished with my treatments and my reconstruction, I started thinking about how I could help in the fight against cancer. I had received so many kindnesses from so many people during my battle that I wanted to “pay it forward” to someone else who needed it. Because my Reach to Recovery volunteer had made such a difference to me, I decided that becoming a Reach volunteer was the best way for me to help. Eventually, I left my job as an attorney and formed Within Reach in order to enhance the training and educational aspects of Reach to Recovery, and to provide additional services to breast cancer patients.

The impact that Reach to Recovery volunteers make is so powerful that as time went on I decided, with my partners at the American Cancer Society, to develop a similar program – the Recovery Coach Program – so that patients battling other forms of cancer can have the benefit of one-on-one peer support. Having been a cancer patient myself, I know that when a volunteer calls a patient the volunteer is providing valuable information and, most importantly, tremendous hope.

Janet Ladd
At the age of 40, I learned I had breast cancer. With no family history and no other apparent risk factors, all I could think was, “This is not happening!” As the weeks and months passed, however, things became all too real. I submerged myself in research, learning as much as possible about DCIS – the type of breast cancer I had – and carefully crafted a message to break the news to my young children, parents, family and friends.

Ironically, just a few months before my diagnosis, I had begun karate classes with my son. Unknowingly, with every punch, sit-up and kick, I was preparing myself for one of life’s most difficult battles -- cancer.

A late-afternoon surgery gave me way too much time to practice the key values of karate: Courage, Perseverance and Attitude. Never doubt that our individual attitudes and behavior affects those around us. Our families. Our co-workers. Our community. Attitudes and behaviors (good and bad) are, indeed, contagious. On the day of surgery, as I looked around the hospital waiting room at my family and close friends, it was the exchange of unspoken emotions that built the foundation of strength and courage upon which I went into surgery. Who knows, maybe the same attitude carried through to the medical team!

After surgery, I was placed in a private room – one of those instances where misery did not love company! They told me I would not be able to drive for a few weeks. And, they said I should plan on several months before resuming “normal” activities. I was not certain whether normal included karate or using the computer (a daily part of my work life), but I was quite certain I should not partake in any type of activity that included dirty laundry, hamster or cockatiel cages, or other laborious chores -- which any reasonable person, if given the chance, would most certainly avoid.

In going through the initial phases of my breast cancer experience, I came to realize how delicate and uncertain life is. From one day to the next, one never knows what life may bring. I was also reminded how blessed I am to have such a supportive, caring, and loving group of family and friends.

I learned how critical it is to trust your instincts and listen to your body. Don’t delay going to the doctors, even for “routine” or “minor” ailments. As I discovered, knowing that something isn’t quite right and acting on that instinct can make a big difference.

I also came to understand that recovery is both a physical and emotional process. I believe that in the “quiet of recovery” (after the whirlwind of activity surrounding the detection and treatment of the cancer itself), my emotions finally caught up with the rest of me. While still positive and – especially after hearing good news from the pathology report, which indicated that the surgery was successful in removing my cancer – very, very thankful, I realized that there weren’t any detours along the journey. I found the need to be patient and accept both my feelings and physical limitations for what they were at the moment. As one fellow breast cancer survivor instructed me, “You have to take time to just be.”

The weeks after surgery were difficult for me. I was an active mother, wife, and busy professional – certainly not accustomed to sitting still. Meetings were conducted without me. Karate friends were promoted to higher belt levels. I recall sitting in class while watching my son. How dare life pass me by! How could life be so different for me yet so normal for everyone else?

Once given the okay by my doctor to resume more strenuous activities, I eased my way back into exercise. Still numb and swollen, I started with the treadmill and weight machines. Then, after several weeks, I received the go-ahead to begin karate classes. I worked closely with my instructors and, through a combination of personal and group classes, I progressed three belt levels. In the Fall of 2004, I participated in a sparring contest. Paired against women and men alike, I won third prize in the adult category! I vividly recall staring each of my opponents in the eyes during the different rounds and thinking “You are nothing compared to cancer . . . if I can overcome that, I can defeat you.” Ironically in October (Breast Cancer awareness month) of 2007, I earned my Black Belt!

For me, and so many others, breast cancer has created a world of unknowns. What is it about my life that put me at risk? Will the cancer return? What about my other breast? Will my daughter have to fight the same battle? Although I cannot answer these questions, I do believe that if we all work together, we can win this fight.

As a blessed survivor, I am proud to be a Reach to Recovery program volunteer and hope that I can provide support, encouragement and inspiration to others as they travel through their own breast cancer journeys.

Phil Shulka
This is me the day before my prostatectomy, preparing my insides. My story is one of stupidity and hope. I used to tell my wife that we may not go into retirement wealthy, but we will be healthy. I was running 15-20 miles a week and felt as good as I ever did. One little thing I neglected: I didn’t have a physical in 4 years. Why should I? I felt great. My wife is a nurse and I am a former Navy Corpsman. We should have known better. My PSA came back at 29 and the biopsy revealed Gleason 10 in all cores. Just about as bad as it gets.

Luckily, my Doctor took a very aggressive course of action with immediate Lupron shots, then 3 months later a DaVinci radical prostatectomy followed by radiation.

It was 2 years ago that I was diagnosed. Today my PSA is negligible and I am doing pretty well. What I learned I would like to pass on to others.

First and foremost, get a PSA test yearly. If found early, prostate cancer is very treatable and can cause minimal interruption in your lifestyle. I was up and about immediately after surgery. Radiation took 5 weeks and did sap my energy for a time, but that was about all.

Become your own advocate. There is a wealth of information in books and on the internet that can help you to make an informed decision along with your doctor. I even watched a DaVinci operation on the internet. I was also pondering a subsequent operation to alleviate an incontinence problem and decided to have it after I saw it on the internet. We fear what we do not know. Knowing the enemy helps you to fight.

Joining a support group can really help to quell some of the fears you will have. You learn that people can live with Cancer. I currently am a Recovery Coach for Within Reach and a Facilitator for Man to Man. Hopefully, my experiences can help others.

Accepting the changes that will occur is important. I have some incontinence and E.D. as a result of the aggressive action during surgery that was required to save my life. I am back to running and exercising at a reduced level, but I feel good. My sense of humor is intact. My wife and I embrace what I am, not what I was. My Cancer will probably come back at some point in time, but that’s a future issue. For now, I feel very lucky. Every day is a gift.

Dick Wilcher


I was 51 years old in 2006 when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. How did I find out and how did I cope with the news?

Over the years, I have had a physical every year, which established benchmarks for my PSA and other medical results. When my PSA climbed from 1.4 to 4.4, my family Doctor recommended I see a urologist. I did that and had a DRE, which showed nothing. It was recommended that I wait six weeks and see if the PSA level would drop down. Six weeks later, I went for another PSA test and my level had increased to 5.7. Based on this, a biopsy was scheduled.

The biopsy came back with a Gleason score of 7 (3+4). Of the 12 samples, 6 had cancer cells. After the shock wore off and I wondered “why me,” it was time to do some research, talk to others, pray, and consider all of the options based on my individual circumstances. Additional tests -- a CT scan and Bone Scan -- were ordered to determine whether the cancer had spread. Those tests both came back negative.

Fortunately for me, I was able to identify a couple of people who had had prostate cancer, and I called them to discuss their experiences. You will find most survivors to be very open to discuss their experiences. We are all different and there are many options for treatment. After careful evaluation of the options, I elected to have a radical prostatectomy at Johns Hopkins, and did so in September, 2006.

Two years later, things are fine. I get a PSA check once per year and have had excellent results ever since I had the surgery.

I am here for whoever needs me to chat about my experience, and no question will go unanswered. I have talked to several people who have now gone through the ups and downs of prostate cancer, and they all felt the chats were invaluable. I participate in the Man to Man support program in Carroll County and help the American Cancer Society whenever asked. I am willing to talk to individuals or groups -- whatever is needed. The Recovery Coach program is an excellent outreach program, through which I think I can help others.





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