Breast cancer survivors are getting on with their lives
There was more than style on display at a fashion show and luncheon on Sunday at the Shore and Country Club in East Norwalk. There was love, determination, enthusiasm, friendship, support and above all, optimism, thanks to the 16 breast cancer survivors who modeled the fall line of Jones New York.
The women ranged in age from 43 to 87. Some have been survivors for about a year, like Dana Rudman, some have been survivors for 30 years, like Mary McGuire. Some of the women have battled the disease once; others more than that.
Santangelo and Gisolfi, who lost her battle with cancer in the spring, came to the same conclusion in 1999 that there was no organization offering information on post-treatment and the support of other cancer survivors. The women founded the not-for-profit organization and on Sunday survivors heralded its 10th anniversary with the "Celebrate Life" fashion show and luncheon.
"We try to show the shape and color of cancer," Santangelo said. "It can happen to anyone. People don't understand that survivors need help now and then."
Sunday, as survivors shared their stories and their lives with each other, it was obvious that they had indeed benefited from each other and the organization. Models for this 10th anniversary event included breast cancer survivors from throughout Fairfield County.
Judith Krone of Westport, who was among the models in the show, is the mother of two children, a daughter, 20, and a son, 11. She was diagnosed two years ago and speaks enthusiastically of the organization's belief that cancer survivors should "get on with their lives."
She said after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went to support groups and found that the focus was on symptoms and medicine. "This group stresses getting on with your life," she said.
McGuire, the 87-year-old mother of singer Leslie Orofino, who emceed the fashion show, brings a burst of enthusiasm to any conversation. She was diagnosed with stage three cancer 30 years ago and never has had a recurrence. However, one of her four daughters was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago.
"She's very healthy today," McGuire said. When pressed for further details about her own cancer, McGuire volunteered, "I just had it chopped off."
Meredith Gray of Silvermine in Norwalk, a fashion stylist who offered her expertise for the afternoon's event, held the 160 luncheon guest spellbound as she chronicled recent events battling her second bout with cancer.
She was first diagnosed four years ago. The cancer returned last year, four days after she attended the Breast Cancer Survival Center's annual luncheon. She shared with her audience some personal thoughts, such as how that before learning the first time she had cancer she "couldn't take the time to reflect on her life." Today she takes the time to understand who she is and where she wants to be.
Gray said it is important that cancer survivors remain positive. She said the fashion show is a morale booster for many women who have had to experience the loss of a breast. She noted how the cancer survivors who model the clothes bathe in the spotlight, if only for one day.
It is that kind of joy that the organization wants to elicit throughout the year for the women, such as Rudman of Fairfield, who despite being diagnosed with cancer a little more than a year ago, and despite then losing her job, modeled her outfit with the exuberance, joy and pride.
The fashion show was Rudman's first event with the Breast Cancer Survival Center, but she is looking forward to many more interactions with the group. She said she's tried other support groups following her double mastectomy and pre- and post-chemo but she felt like a fish out of water.
"The difference between the Breast Cancer Survival Center and all the other groups I had tried is that these people focus on the `what now?' And that's my big issue, what now?" Rudman said. "I had cancer. I had aggressive surgery. I had aggressive chemo. I had side effects that limited and debilitated me all summer and I am at the point now, how do I live the rest of my life? We're people now that when we get a headache, we think, is it brain cancer? We get a stomach ache, is it colon cancer? There are so many things that come up in a survivor's mind that I am having trouble dealing with and I am so excited to find a group where literally you can't get in unless you are post treatment. Because they are so specific about that I feel like people will relate to me much better."
And meeting long-term survivors like McGuire have renewed Rudman's glass-half-full outlook on life.
"I used to be someone who was so hopeful, but once I got cancer I wasn't the same hopeful person," she said. "For the last 14 months it's been so hard to stay positive about the future. I met Mary McGuire at the fashion show who is a survivor for 30 years. I burst into tears when I met her. I told her, `You are my new inspiration. I want to have at least 30 years.' "
For many of the models their confidence came not only from the enthusiasm of their family and friends in attendance, but also from their doctors who also attended the event. One of the doctors at the event was Barbara Ward, who attended the event with her 14-year-old daughter Erin Andrews of Greenwich. Ward is a breast cancer surgeon at Greenwich Hospital. Her own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38.
"Every year I'm so uplifted to see the survivors and their positive attitude. So, I'm very motivated after an event like this," she said.
She said part of the uniqueness of the organization is that it lends continuous support as opposed to leaving the survivors with the overwhelming feeling of, "OK, what do I do next?" The women stay active for years to support the group's other survivors.
Lynore Aaron, a member of the board of directors of the Breast Cancer Survival Center, is also director of prosthesis and mastectomy bras at Soleil Toile in New Canaan. She praised the group's positive attitude. Throughout her work at the shop she has introduced a lot of cancer survivors to the organization.
Santangelo said that learned she had breast cancer during a routine mammogram. There was no history whatsoever in the family so the diagnosis was "the shock of her life." Through her own personal battle with the disease she learned at that time there were no support groups that offered the kind of support, discussion and advice that she felt survivors like herself needed. So she and Gisolfi founded the Breast Cancer Survival Center, a survivor-driven organization.
BCSC is the only program in the state of Connecticut devoted exclusively to post-treatment issues, and operates at facilities provided by Norwalk Community College and satellite locations like Soleil Toile. Among the services BCSC provides are support and discussion groups, a buddy program for doctors' appointments and mammograms, a quarterly newsletter, a special speakers series featuring experts in the field of cancer and related topics, awareness events, weekend and day retreats, and a resource library.
BCSC is open to any breast cancer survivor no matter where or how long ago treatment took place. Since it began offering services in September 1999, more than 2,000 survivors and family members have participated in the programs.
For more information, visit www.breastcancersurvival.org, call 857-7304 or e-mail email@example.com
Nicole Rivard contributed to this story.