I have chosen to write about my experience hoping that it can help someone that has gone through, or whom is currently going through the same experience I had. Hopefully they can see how a person can swim through a sea of grief, and not drown, with just a little faith and hope by their side.
Thursday, March 1, 2001 at 8:22 p.m., the telephone rang. It was cancer on the phone. Almost three weeks before my 28th birthday. It's sad how I can't remember what I did last Saturday, but I can remember the exact time and date I received a phone call over 12 years ago. Although I guess anyone would remember the day his or her entire life changed. I packed hope, courage, faith and strength into a bag for the long journey I was about to take. A journey that would completely change my life.
Three days after a lumpectomy, the nurse at my doctorsí office called to tell me I had breast cancer. My doctor was away on vacation so I wouldn't get to discuss the specifics until I met with him in his office that following Sunday. I can remember glancing down at my legs and actually seeing them tremble as she told me.
I think one of the hardest things in the world I've ever had to do was tell my parents I have cancer. And as if that wasn't hard enough, I think telling family and friends was the next worse thing. I felt like it was somehow my fault. I was the one that went and got cancer. I'm so sorry I did this to all of you, I kept thinking.
"I don't think I can do this. I can't, I just can't." I said to one of my friends. But her response to me at the time was, "Well, you have no choice. You're going to have to fight.". I had no choice and I'd have to fight a battle I didn't even ask for. Like an untrained soldier standing in the frontlines forced to fight against a faceless, malevolent enemy that had no rules, no mercy, and would fight to the end. I knew one of us would have to die, and I was terrified it would be me. Despite the tremendous amount of love and support I received from everyone around me, I knew that ultimately it would have to be me all by myself, to either surrender, or fight like hell to get my life back.
I can remember everyone around me telling me how much courage they thought I had. But such a courageous person voluntarily attempts to defeat their opponent, donít they? They enlist; theyíre not drafted, right? Their rival isnít thrown at them where theyíre left swinging their fists in the air fighting for their life.
Being close to my family, having so many great friends, and dating always led me to so many new exciting opportunities and experiences. I had a boyfriend, was vacationing in the islands, wining and dining every other night, and having fun like any other 27year old. The entire world was at my fingertips. At that age I always pictured living my life. Not fighting for it.
After finding out about the cancer, like most everyone else faced with something they feel they have no control over, I began making every plea to God and offering any deal with him imaginable. I promised him everything under the sun. Whatever you want, Iíd say, if youíll just make this all be one bad dream.
At one point I can even remember thinking to myself how it really might be a dream, just like one Iíve had in the past and woken up from. One of those dreams that seem so real, you wake up actually laughing or crying. I thought that any minute Iíd wake up.
But no promise or plea seemed to work. And a pinch wasnít waking me up. 1 out of every 20,000 woman younger than 30 get breast cancer. And unfortunately that 1 happened to be me.
I tried to put a brave front up when around everyone else. But, I couldnít help myself from crying in my bed at night while thousands of thoughts raced through my head. I tried figuring out what I possibly could have done in my life so bad to deserve getting cancer. I thought it was somehow a punishment. At the time, I may have questioned God saying, "How? How could this happen?" Maybe I wasnít a good enough person? Did I do something wrong? Or maybe I just wasnít eating right, exercising enough, etc. But I would never let myself say, "Why? Why me?" I always thought by asking God something like "Why me?" was like asking him why not someone else instead of me. And cancer isnít something Iíd wish upon anyone.
As everything started unraveling and obstacles were being tossed at me from every which direction, my head was spinning in circles from all the chaos and confusion around my house. But all of the love and support that emerged was absolutely incredible. Everyone took on different roles. Whether it was to make me laugh, help me cry or just listen to my uncertainties and fears. Even people I didnít know. I received hundreds of cards and can remember packages, flowers, and gifts arriving for months. I still think about how incredible it was to have that ban of strength surrounding me, and how lucky I was to have all of these wonderful people in my life. I know I could not have made it through what I did without the help of everyone else giving me the strength, hope and faith that I needed.
Although everyone was graciously telling me how much strength I had, what they failed to realize was that it was them, not me that held the strength. They were the strength for me because I certainly didnít feel strong at the time. I felt as though I was falling into this bottomless pit. But, there to the rescue came each and every single person that ever touched my life with their arms reaching out to catch me. And believe me, if they would have let go, I would have fallen.
In the midst of all of the shock, I was sent for scans to make sure the cancer hadn't spread. I remember finding out the results while still in the waiting room. "The scans are clear. Everything's good." they told us. Me, my mom and dad, all hugged in the middle of the waiting room.
I also had dozens of decisions to make and very little time to make them in. I had to choose a breast surgeon for a mastectomy they were recommending I have done, a plastic surgeon for the reconstruction, an oncologist for chemotherapy, and a fertility doctor (I was told at the time that there would be a possiblity of infertility due to the aggressive chemotherapy regimen I'd most likely receive.), and so on.
It wasnít an easy decision, but I ending up choosing one of the top breast surgeons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He would then refer me to an oncologist at Sloan after the surgery. I also chose a plastic surgeon that worked with him on a regular basis. I tried two fertility doctors, but ended up choosing neither. I decided that putting my body through high levels of hormones to freeze my eggs or having more surgery for fertility purposes just before starting chemo wasn't the best thing to do. Iíd leave chance up to God.
Before starting chemo and losing my hair, one of my friends planned a "Wig Dinner' for me. Each one of my family members and friends that attended shamed themselves as they walked across the huge restaurant with a wig tucked snug on top of their heads. Pointing, whispers, smirks, giggles, and heckling filled the room as we walked to our table.
April 3rd, I walked into the hospital along with my family to have the mastectomy. Soon after checking in and changing into a hospital gown, one of the nurses came to escort me into the operating room. With a blessed mother scapula stuffed into my sock, rosary beads clenched in my hand, and a surgical hat hanging from my head, I swallowed hard as I hugged and kissed my family goodbye. I put a fake smile on that I was barely able to muster up to reassure everyone, and then walked arm in arm with the nurse through the double steel doors and into the room.
I stopped and hesitated to look around. "Are you okay?" she said as she squeezed my hand. I just nodded while examining all the sophisticated computers, machines, tubes and equipment surrounding me. My legs were weak and shaky from being afraid, so I started concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as she walked me over to the operating table. I lied down on the cold table, trembling and trying to control myself from crying. There were beeping, suctioning, pumping, and clicking sounds all around me as a team of doctors and nurses prepared for my surgery. One of the nurses put a blanket over me then slipped off my gown. I clenched my teeth together to try and stop them from chattering, then clasped both my hands together to stop them from shaking. The nurse grabbed onto my hands and looked down at me as she said, "Itís okay."
As they began hooking me up to a few of those fancy machines, I glanced over at the double steel doors and saw Dr. B, my surgeon, walk in. Then the anesthesiologist placed a large mask over my face and told me to take deep breaths. I couldnít hold back anymore. Tears quickly welled up as my eyes slowly began to close.
That was the last thing I can remember before waking up in the recovery room holding my momís hand. My eyes were still hazy, but I could see my dad walking towards me with a smile on his face. He leaned over the bar on the side of the bed and gave me a kiss. As my eyes slowly began clearing up, I saw other family members and friends coming in to see me.
By the next day, all I wanted to do was get out of that hospital. I pleaded with every visitor that came to see me to take me home. But not one person would! I finally realized that I was all on my own if I wanted to escape. Even if it meant getting on my hands and knees begging for a discharge.
The following morning my plan was in action. I woke up bright and early. Although my left arm was still incapacitated from the mastectomy, I carefully took one deep breath to suck up the pain as I began preparing for my exit. I gracefully changed into a clean hospital gown, brushed my hair and teeth, actually put makeup on, and propped myself up in a chair awaiting the team of doctors to arrive as they did every morning.
7:45a.m, two doctors walked in. I managed a phony smile as beads of sweat formed on my forehead. With my right hand, I lowered my gown to show them my war scar. "How do you feel?" they asked while inspecting my wound. "Good! Iím feeling good!" I lied. If there were ever an academy award performance done at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, it was in my room that morning. I then was discharged.
I had two drains sewn into my side that would remain there for the next two weeks to release any excess built up of fluid in my chest. After arriving home, later that day I went to empty out the drains.
I slowly peeled off the bandages so that I could get to the drains. Reluctantly, I glanced down.
As much as my heart broke that day seeing what I did, I always continued to remind myself of how everything could have ended up much worse. I was still very lucky, in spite of how it may have seemed at the time. I began realizing that this wasn't a punishment, this wasn't because of something I did wrong, and it certainly wasn't because I "deserved" it. I believe that everything in life happens for a reason. But I began wondering what this reason could be?
About a week after the mastectomy, along with my parents I sat in the office of my surgeon. I was so nervous the room seemed to be spinning in circles. The three of us carefully listened to him read the results to the pathology report.
The cancer was poorly differentiated, high-grade, infiltrating carcinoma associated with extensive lympho-vasular invasion. Beside the original tumor, the surrounding area seemed to have a "spray" effect. Meaning that there were several swollen lymph nodes, cysts, other small tumors, and microscopic traces of cancer all around the area. 22 lymph nodes were positive out of the 34 extracted. Level I had 7 out of 8, Level II had 7 out of 15. There were also Level III involvement with 6 out of 19 being positive. There was metastatic carcinoma in 2 out of 2 lymph nodes. In addition, I tested positive for the Her-2 gene. Okay, English translation please!
My wonderful family were all there for me every step of the way. Being so close to them, in a way, they too were battling cancer. Along with every one of my wonderful friends. Everyone of them helped me back onto my feet when I physically and emotionally couldnít do it on my own. My parents had always taught me that itís okay to fall. Just as long as you get back up and try walking again.
Despite the cancer, I still consider myself extremely blessed. I could not have asked for more wonderful parents than my mom and dad. They are the epitome of what every child looks for in a parent. My sisters, brother and I have all learned from their example over the years on how to be caring, loving, understanding, trusting, encouraging, courageous, and patient. They instilled in us a good sense of knowing right from wrong, to make the right decision with difficult choices, to do our best to succeed, and if failure does ever cross our path; to accept it with dignity and learn from it. I donít think a child ever really thinks that theyíll use what their parents try to teach them while growing up. Our minds are on fun, not responsibility. But I quickly learned how I was about to use everything my parents taught me over the past 27 years against the challenges in front of me I was about to face head on.
May 14th, I started chemotherapy. I was called into one of the twenty or so treatment rooms. A reclining chair, t.v., guest chair, counter and end table occupied each room. I met Cindy, one of the many extremely nice technicians that would administer the chemo to me over the next year and a half. As I sat back in the chair, Cindy began hooking me up to the I.V. line. My body was shaking so much that my arm had to be held down for the needle to be put in. "Okay, here we go." Cindy said. I clenched my teeth, and squeezed tightly onto the arm of the chair with my other hand. I looked down at my legs that were sticking straight out onto the footrest. They were also shaking uncontrollably. I tried not letting my parents see, but I couldnít make them stop. My mom reached over and held onto them. She brushed her hands back and forth to try and soothe me. My chest and head were still trembling as I turned to the side and looked the other way when Cindy opened up the line.
I received three months of Adriamycin and Cytoxin followed by three months of Taxol. I was also accepted onto a clinical trial, so for one year proceeding the chemo, I received weekly infusions of Herceptin.
The chemo didn't really take very long before making me sick. And as the treatments continued, I found it more difficult to even make it home from the hospital without vomiting. One time on the way home when I was lying down in the backseat of the car, I felt a wave of nausea come over me. I suddenly jumped up and asked my mom for a bucket. She quickly handed it to me as my dad swerved over to the curb. I threw the door open and dropped down onto my hands and knees. Cars and trucks flew by on the highway as I knelt on the side of the road throwing up.
It was never a normal kind of throwing up. At least not the hangover, wine kind I was used to. It was a kind that I donít think a person could possibly get without being pumped full poison. I was shaky, weak, and sick with broken blood vessels in my eyes and all over my face from straining so hard.
Throughout my treatments, I made many special friends at the hospital. I knew just about everyone from the doorman, to patients, to the phlebotomist. Besides my parents and various friends or family members that came with me for my treatments; other patients and technicians came into the room to sit with me while the chemo was being administered.
Dr. D, my oncologist, Jamie, her head nurse and Christine were all great. Each one, so kind and caring. We kept each other laughing, and they continued to pamper me every week, particularly when new "phantom" cancers seemed to constantly develop. "Phantom" cancers being cancers I invented or diagnosed all by my smart self. "No Mary, you donít have cancer in your tooth. No Mary, you donít have cancer in your spleen." All right, maybe smart self wasnít so smart after all? Maybe at the time, all I needed was a little security and reassurance. But slowly as my treatments continued; jokes and magic tricks replaced all that cancer talk. I loved to make them laugh. And also loved performing magic tricks. When I was little, I used to do magic shows for kids birthday parties.
What patience all of them must have had. They knew exactly how I needed to be treated. But now looking back in retrospect, I realize how in the middle of their busy day, with a huge room full of people impatiently waiting and complaining, Dr. D, Jamie and Christine all stopped what they were doing to watch me perform magic. And not only did they watch, but theyíd also ask for it every time I was in to see them. Here I thought I was being the Master of Illusions! The Queen of Magic! The fun patient who was in high demand of her talents! But in all actuality, they were getting me to play "magician" instead of "doctor".
In fact, at one point I even dressed up like my oncologist. AND talked my mom into dressing up like Jamie her nurse for Halloween.
Within the first two weeks of receiving my first chemo treatment, I was already in the hospital with a blood count of .1. Thatís pretty low. As I remained in the hospital for several days, my hair started coming out in fistfuls. My mother called a local beautician to give me a haircut. After seeing how much already fell out, the beautician suggested shaving off the remaining strands since there wasn't much left to shape.
I sat completely still on a chair in the middle of the hospital room and looked straight ahead. The beautician plugged her electric shaver into the outlet and took a pair of scissors out from her bag. My new friend Shannon, who was receiving chemo for ovarian cancer, sat on her bed reading a book. I looked directly past her and just gazed at the wall.
As much as I tried incredibly hard to hold back, tears just started pouring down my face. I tried telling myself over and over how my hair really didn't matter and all that mattered was that I get better. Shannon looked down, closed her book and then got up and left the room.
The beautician grabbed a handful of hair, and with one big sweep chopped it off. She continued around my head snipping away at any leftover stragglers. I froze in my seat and wouldnít move my head. But, from the corner of my eye I could make out her hand reaching over for the buzzer. "Click". She turned it on. With one loud shriek that pierced right through me, she pressed it up against my head and began shaving off any remaining strands. After she was all done, both her and my mom quickly threw a hat on top of my head.
Together, they swept up the floor and then the beautician left. I began quietly sobbing as my mom grabbed me and wrapped her arms around me. She kept telling me over and over how beautiful I still looked. But, I certainly didnít feel beautiful.
The rest of the hair on my body, including eyebrows eventually fell out. I was most comfortable wearing baseball caps to cover my baldhead and saved my wig for dressier occasions when a hat wasnít appropriate. My attempts at drawing eyebrows on were extremely pathetic. I would either look very "surprised" or very "mad". I was never really quite able to get just the right arch.
On one occasion when I went out to dinner with friends I happened to be wearing my wig that night. During dinner I left to go to the bathroom so that I could brush it. Easier said than done. Believe me.
Apparently, I had put too much gel in it because with one big swoop, I brushed it right off my head and into the sink. Naturally, as my luck would have it, the door opened and one of the cleaning ladies began making her way in. I looked down at my hair just lying there in the sink directly in front of me. Without hesitation, I grabbed a hold of it with both hands and threw it back on top of my head. It may have been messy. It may have been crooked. It may have even been lopsided. But most importantly, it was sitting back on my head where it belonged.
The woman walked in, filled the soap dispenser on the other side of the bathroom, and then glanced over at the other dispenser beside me. I gave her an awkward smile as the untamed animal perched on top of my head. She nodded, managed a phony smile back, but dared not attempt coming close.
With her head hanging down and eyes glued to the floor, she left me and animal to duke it out all by ourselves. After taming the angry beast, I went back to the table to tell the tale of "The Cleaning Lady Meets Animal".
My blood count continued to deteriorate, so I was in and out of hospitals and emergency rooms through out the duration of my treatments. By the end, my counts were so low that I had to give myself injections at home to help increase it. There was one particular night I just couldnít build the courage up to stick the needle in all by myself. I kept looking at my leg, and then looking at the tip of the needle. Iíd swing my hand back and forth all ready to stick it in. But, I just couldnít do it. I went into my parentís room and asked my mom. After several unsuccessful attempts, I called my dad in to do it. He took the needle from my hand and looked me straight in the eye. Without looking down at my leg, he continued focusing on my face and talking to me. As I just began explaining to him how it should be done, he stuck the needle straight into the side of my leg without ever having looked away from my face. Lucky shot. I guess in his world, thatís called distraction and it worked!
November 26th, I had another surgery to replace the temporary tissue expander in my chest with a permanent implant and minor reconstruction done to the right breast. December 19th, was the start of my 28-day radiation regimen. Everyone there was also great. "Will it hurt?" I asked them. "No, it won't hurt. Don't worry, you'll be just fine." they all reassured me. Each day I'd lie in a pre-made body cast and look straight ahead at a red beam of light veered directly at me. Four times the technicians would clear the room as they radiated different sections of my body. I would hear a loud buzzing sound, the kind your clothes dryer makes. Then all the lights around me would flicker and dim, as if all the electricity in the hospital were being sucked up just to zap me with radiation. Most of the technicians were around my age. So weíd laugh and joke in between each session. That kept my mind off of what was actually happening.
As the treatments slowly came to an end, I began realizing that my life was not over. People spend their entire lives looking for answers to questions like what they believe to be the meaning of life. But now before reaching age 30, unfortunately it had to take something like cancer to show me what I should have known all these years. "Cancer" gave me my answer to the age-old question. "What is the meaning of life?" Itís ironic how something can both rob us of our life, and teach us a significant and poignant lesson about it.
To me now, life is about love. Spending time with loved ones and cherishing those times. Because regardless of how rich you are, poor you are, sick you are or healthy; no one can take that away from you. Not even cancer. Life isnít about being rich with expensive cars, clothes, or homes. Itís about being rich with family and friends. Cherishing the time you spend with each of them instead of letting each day pass by. I donít know what happens when we die. Although I do have my thoughts on it. But Iím almost positive that we donít take our cars, jewelry or money with us. And Iíll bet everything I own that the one thing we do take with us is the love we have and share. So then why do so many people work on making more money, rather than spending time with the people in their life that matter the most? You can never tell someone often enough how much you care about them. And I know that now. Because not everyone gets a second chance.
After my treatments did end (me with my hair starting to grow back) at one of my "End of Chemo Celebration Parties" shown above), I used to spend so much time worrying about my prognosis, a reoccurrence, or cancer. But I've learned now that I can't spend my entire life worrying about dying, then I'm not really living, am I? Many people are cured of cancer. Iíve learned that I canít live based on statistics or what some textbook says my chances are. I don't know what my prognosis is, and quite honestly, I really don't want to know. I refuse to ever look back and have to say I should have or could have. Whether I succeed or fail in doing it, I want to be able to say I tried.
Iím not saying itís easy. I still have a lot of learning to do. But, I know that right now I'm better, and whether I get to live 1 more year, or 50 more years, Iím going to make the best of each day. Fifty years of life doesn't necessarily mean fifty years of living. It really is the quality of life, not the quantity. Everyone is at risk for something. So, whether my risk happens to be that Iím getting into a car on a cold, icy night, boarding a plane to fly to Tahiti, or the fact that I once had cancer, Iím going to take each day as it comes and not sweat the small stuff. Lifeís too short for that.
I think once a person has cancer, they begin looking at life through an entirely new window. I think you learn to re-evaluate your priorities and gain a better understanding of what "really" matters in life. I now realize that life isnít a free give-away. Every laugh, every tear, every smile, every breath, and every day I get to share with the people I love is a precious gift from God. And I thank him for it every chance I get. Thatís how I try to live now. Of course life does go on and I get just as impatient, irritated and aggravated at times as the next person! Believe me, patientís certainly is a virtue. But most of the time I'm compelled to slow down and start thinking of what really matters.
When I was both ten and twelve years old, I got together friends of mine and coordinated shows at my school to raise money for cancer research. My grandmothers passing away from cancer each time inspired me to organize the shows. They were far from "Broadway". We had no microphones or lighting, a pathetic, unpolished cast that couldn't remember their lines, and sold handwritten tickets. The audience should have charged US to stay and watch.
But now, over a decade and a half later, and after being a cancer survivor myself, Iím once again looking to raise money for cancer research. But this time it isnít an unorganized show by a sad little girl that's just lost her grandma. Itís a girl whoís all grown up now and looking to somehow contribute and make a difference where it seems like nothing else can.
Thatís when I decided to start the "Mary Stolfa Cancer Foundation". But, the purpose of the foundation is to do more than just raise money. Itís also to raise awareness and increase public knowledge of cancer related issues. By getting more people informed and knowledgeable, ultimately that will lead to earlier detection and more lives saved. The foundation also offers support and encouragement to patients and their families who are currently undergoing or have undergone cancer treatment. By doing this, Iím hoping to give back even just a small portion of what was given to me. Maybe everything in life really does happen for a reason?
Iíve always been a fairly private person. Not particularly one to share my deepest thoughts or feelings with any open ear that listens. And certainly not one to offer my most private moments for the world to see. I still donít openly talk about what happened, unless of course asked. But I thought it was important to share my experience, even the most difficult parts, for anyone else going through cancer to see.
So they too can realize that they will get through and past it all, despite how bad things may look. No matter how much pain, grief, or fear there may be, it will pass. A good friend of mine once said to me, "This Too Shall Pass." If you can remember that, particularly when everything else in the world seems to be going wrong and you think you can't do it, youíll come to realize that you will get past it all. Even if at the moment, the light at the end of the tunnel seems so far away.
My hair is all grown back now. And although I'll never be the same person I was before I had cancer, when I turn my head to look back on what happened to me, I realize how much I learned, and what a stronger person it has made me become.
SIXTEEN years later, after 68 rounds of chemo, 28 treatments of radiation, and six surgeries; it is Friday, March 1, 2019 at 8:22pm and I am proud to say that I am still CANCER FREE.
(originally written 2002)
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