Survivors Share Their Stories
The privilege of hearing a person’s story is one of the greatest aspects of being human. And when that story is a particularly triumphant one – about a woman who courageously fights breast cancer and shares her wisdom with other women – it’s an even more rewarding addition to the canons of experience.
Recently, Mount Pleasant Magazine writer Barbara Patrick and I had the joy of meeting nine local women. They differ in age, profession and, of course, what they each have endured. But these nine ladies have one important thing in common: They are all survivors of breast cancer, a disease that has touched the lives of most women in one way or another. We all have mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters and close friends with stories about breast cancer. Some, of course, are more heartbreaking than others. But in honor of October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are proud to give you these nine inspiring stories.
Creating Family in Charleston – and in the World
Jenny Haslam contemplated leaving the Lowcountry before she realized that she’d developed her own support group. Originally from the Midwest, Jenny came to the Charleston area “for an adventure after college,” she said, and got a job teaching preschool. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of this year.
Throughout her experience, Jenny’s colleagues at the preschool have been there for her. In fact, Jenny’s young students have been there as well. She described how the summer has been tougher than the academic year because she hasn’t had the chance to interact with her students.
“During the school year, I would get up, go to work, laugh and have fun with them,” she said. “And it’s been cool to see my co-workers band together with me and pray with me. It brings everyone together.”
Jenny started a blog about her experience, which she said has been “really therapeutic.”
“Strangers have been reading it and emailing me,” she remarked. “Everyone has been affected by breast cancer in some way.”
She paused thoughtfully. “For me, there has to be a purpose. I want to return the encouragement I’ve received and help other young women.”
A Network of Friends
Life was wonderful for the Ferraro family. Just two weeks after moving to Mount Pleasant, a new baby brought more joy. Then, eight months later, Nicole felt a lump while nursing Logan. On New Year’s Eve, a phone call brought devastating news.
“I heard the word cancer, and I couldn’t hear anything after that,” Nicole said.
Nicole and her husband, Kevin, took control of her care, seeking treatment that would allow her to see her children Griffin, now 7, and Logan, now 4, grow up. At the age of 36, Nicole was sick, bald and weak. But she was loved by her friends.
“They brought us food; I didn’t cook for six months,” she said. “And one friend would wait for me when I dropped Griffin at school. She knew I was too weak to carry Logan in.”
Surrounded by a safety net of friends – and even strangers who would become friends, Nicole realized how fortunate she was. She realized others were less fortunate. And so she is dedicated to the goal of Share Our Suzy.
“I had so much support; I want to pay it back,” Nicole said.
Four years later, she is part of the safety net for others, providing not only information and resources but also encouragement and hope as a volunteer for Share Our Suzy. There she has found friends and survivors who work tirelessly to ease the lives of others.
Although she is forever changed, life is again wonderful for Nicole and her family. And she is grateful for her health and the opportunity to lend a helping hand.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
Pat was a child in London during World War II, a fearful time of blackouts and bombs. Was she frightened? Absolutely not.
“They took us to school every day,” Pat said.
Maintaining that sense of normalcy was instrumental in developing Pat’s ability to accept the slings of life and to keep moving forward. In spite of facing medical issues, including heart surgery and a stroke, Pat always sees the glass as half full.
So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 75, she took it in stride.
“I told them just to cut it off,” she laughed. Because the cancer was stage I and no lymph nodes were involved, she needed no further treatment.
She didn’t think much of the idea of a prosthesis either.
“What’s a prosthesis,” she asked.
“A boob,” she was told.
“Why didn’t you just say so,” Pat retorted.
She agreed to try a “fake boob,” but it wasn’t for her.
“It was too heavy,” Pat confided. “It made me lean to one side. I carried it in my purse and threw it across the table to my friends.”
Dominique Lamb, Pat’s daughter-in-law, said the story represents Pat’s indomitable personality.
“She is always positive,” Dominique said about Pat. “Always laughing.”
It seems Pat always gets the last laugh.
Lobbying for the Cure
Ten years ago, Bonnie Hancock found out that she had breast cancer. One year later, she attended the Susan G. Komen Survivor Celebration with a friend. She promptly decided, after being inspired by fellow survivors, to “volunteer her time vigorously.”
“Nine years ago, I started volunteering by helping with survivor luncheons, helping with leadership conferences and lobbying for research money,” she said.
Hancock currently serves on the Board for Komen’s Lowcountry branch, where she stays highly involved in collecting funds for the organization. This month, she is helping to produce the second fundraiser at Wild Dunes. Sponsored by the Wild Dunes Tennis Association, it features tennis, golf and a silent auction – all for the sake of the ladies who are fighting a breast cancer battle.
“We raised over $16,000 last year,” said Hancock. “The way I look at it is, that’s over 160 mammograms for women who aren’t able to afford it.”
Hancock spoke about how important it is to accept help from other people, as well as to give help when it’s needed – especially when it comes to something as life-changing as breast cancer.
“It’s sometimes tough for people to accept help,” she commented. “But other women who have dealt with it have the same issues and anxieties. When it comes to being around survivors, you know you’re sitting with sisters.”
Leading the Warriors
“I felt like something was not right before I was even diagnosed,” she said. “I felt a lump and experienced exhaustion – I knew to go to the doctor.”
After her own diagnosis, Moore decided to reach out to other young women between the ages of 25 and 45 who were experiencing breast cancer. She felt that being diagnosed at a younger age could present its own set of challenges, such as dealing with career and small children. She even wrote her own story in a memoir titled “Warriors Wear Pink.”
“I don’t ever sugarcoat,” she admitted. “I also don’t scare people. I base information on the hundreds of women and men I’ve talked to.”
According to Moore, the doctor “gets your body healthy,” while Warriors 4 Warriors, which is the foundation that materialized soon after her memoir, “gets your heart and head healthy.” The Warriors Foundation makes it a point to get to know the women who are currently struggling with breast cancer – including meeting the families, learning about their jobs and offering support throughout the healing process.
“Emotional and mental healing takes so much longer,” said Moore.
In Charge of the Celebration
When Lisa Jones found out she had breast cancer in 2012, she had been working at the Lowcountry Susan Komen Foundation for two years. In an instant, she went from empathizing with the women – and men – who sought help from the Foundation to sharing their situation.
“I knew a lot of information through my work; I was lucky and informed,” she said. “But it all seemed surreal.”
Jones, like many women who experience breast cancer, received help and support from her family and close friends. She expressed how much her two older sisters helped out during treatment, keeping house so that Jones’ husband did not have to.
“Cancer is a family and friends illness,” she remarked. “You get by with family and friends. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
As of late, Jones spends a good deal of time putting the Komen Race for the Cure together. Meanwhile, she has “a different understanding” when women and their family members call and ask for advice.
“I like working for an issue, especially women’s issues,” she said. “We have to help each other, whatever the case may be.”
The Komen Race culminates each October with a Survivor’s Celebration, which Jones works diligently to put together with the help of music performers, speakers, film creatives and others.
“We have a stage committee,” she said. “And the stage is filled with music, lights and cheering – everyone celebrating with their families. Not everyone has been affected directly by breast cancer, but it’s an inspiring experience.”
Educating Through Word of Mouth
“As women, we take care of everyone else – our children, our pets, our spouses – and the nurturing part of ourselves is constantly stirred up. But we tend to forget about or put off taking care of ourselves,” she said.
Foster, who owns a print shop in West Ashley, said she sees women all the time who neglect health routines such as flu shots, checkups and mammograms. Surprisingly, the ladies who visit Foster’s shop for printing, packing and shipping are willing to talk candidly about their lives.
“They’ll tell me about why they’re mailing a package and then tell me about themselves,” she said with a smile. “They’re all multitasking, like usual.”
Foster, who has two daughters, 23 and 28, believes in the importance of groups to help ladies work through the challenges of breast cancer. She currently attends a breast cancer support group at John Wesley United Methodist Church, which she discovered through one of her customers.
“Groups assist with matters such as nutrition, experiences and socializing,” she said. “There’s a lot of mentoring going on as well. Once you’ve gone through breast cancer, there’s a bond you feel with other women.”
Connecting Mothers, Daughters – and Women
Back in 2003, Shirley Nilsen worked for a company that performed free mammograms. One day, during one of her own routines exams, she said “something didn’t look right.” Thus, Nilsen and her doctor decided to perform an ultrasound and biopsy.
“I was lucky because we caught it early,” she said. “I went through chemotherapy and lost my hair. It was an emotional experience, though, it was 10 years ago.”
Nilsen emphasized how having the support of her husband and children made all the difference. Today, Shirley is returning that support to her daughter and her four granddaughters – as well as any woman who might be affected by breast cancer. She currently serves on the board of the Susan Komen Foundation, spreading the word about the importance of regular mammograms to the ladies of the Lowcountry.
“I am concerned on behalf of my daughter and my four granddaughters,” she said. “But I really do think a cure is on the way, as long as funding and research exist.”
Nilsen feels that women who triumph over breast cancer naturally reach out to one another.
“We feel like a unit or an army,” she said. “Every woman has her own story, and, when you’re surrounded by other survivors, you want to give back.”
The Gift of Friends
But cancer did interrupt Jessica Ottmers’ busy life at age 34, in the form of a tiny pebble-like lump. What had been a “let’s wait and see” became a “stage 1.” Even though Jessica had no real risk factors, she had an uneasy feeling that the lump might be something.
The cure, a lumpectomy plus chemo and radiation, was no fun, but the black cloud of cancer often brings a silver lining – the support and care of friends and the encouragement of survivors. It also taught her that life is to be cherished and to enjoy each moment.
“I had no family here but we had good friends who helped,” Jessica said. “My husband is a chef, and he had the flexibility to change his schedule to be home in the evenings to care for Sophie. It was a blessing.”
Jessica carries that blessing forward to help those on the journey to survival through organizations that help women fight the battle. She currently serves as co-navigator and warrior liaison for Warriors 4 Warriors. She finds comfort and strength laced with friendship with “a wonderful group of survivors.”
“I am on the board of the Warriors 4 Warriors Foundation,” she said. “I met (founder) Leslie Crawford Moore in the chemo chair, and we have been friends ever since.”
Life carries more meaning for Jessica now. Even daughter Sophie, now 6, likes to help and “gets excited about the pink ribbon.”
“I learned how precious life is and not to take it for granted. I learned to really see what matters,” Jessica said. “Life is a gift that can be taken away.”
And Jessica embraces every moment.