Women on a mission against breast cancer

Four breast cancer survivors are transforming their lives and finding strength in helping others

10/13/2012 12:00 AM

03/26/2013 5:50 PM

Everyone knows someone — a mother, a sister, a daughter, and in rare cases, a man — who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. About one out of every eight women in the United States will get the news one day — with one in four of those younger than 50.

There is hope: Early detection and customized therapies have increased survival by about a decade in the majority of patients. And the pink troops are not giving up on the cure. They will be out en masse Saturday in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bayfront Park, clad in pink shirts, pink shorts, and flamingo pink bras to raise funds for breast cancer research.

Some will be young single mothers like Andrea Nugent, 43, who are dedicated to helping patients in need. Some will be like Jessica LaBonte, 34, who is fighting the same disease that killed her loved ones. And others will be dedicated advocates like Rhonda M. Smith, 51, and Bibiana Salmon, 52, who know there remains work to be done.

“Every little action counts. We have the ability to alleviate others’ suffering. We have the ability to change lives,” Salmon said. “We have to do everything we can to find the cure, because our little girls should not have to go through what we went through, or die of this disease.”

BREAKING THE CYCLE

A tattooed beaded chain with an intertwined pink ribbon has surrounded Jessica LaBonte’s right ankle since she was 30.

When she was a teenager in New Hampshire, she remembers cancer had spread to her grandmother’s bones, brain, and chest wall. She died June 30, 1991. A few years later, doctors found a small tumor in her mother’s breast. Her seven-year battle included surgery, chemo, radiation, a stem cell transplant, and alternative treatments in Mexico. LaBonte was a University of New Hampshire student when the cancer cells got to her mom’s liver and killed her Sept. 7, 1999.

Ten years later while working in her “dream job” with The Miami Heat, LaBonte tested positive for a genetic mutation that increased her risk of contracting the disease. She increased surveillance and was diagnosed Oct. 19, 2011.

“My diagnosis was similar to my mom’s,” said the 34-year-old. “I’m determined to do everything I can to change the story.”

She had surgery to remove both breasts in December. And with the help of her family, she opted for alternative treatments such as intravenous vitamin C infusions, colonics and a juice fast at a center for “natural healing” in New Hampshire. She returned to Miami in June and began chemo in August. Her University of Miami oncologist, Dr. Stefan Gluck, told her she is responding well to treatment.

THE BIONIC GIRL

Andrea Nugent was 39 when doctors found cancer in her breast, ovary and lymphatic system. When she got too sick during treatment to take care of her 2-year-old son Zachary Nelson, she said her Jamaican family rallied around her.

“I’m from Kingston. It’s like that with Caribbean families. When somebody goes down, it goes unspoken, everyone gets together to help them get back up,” Nugent said.

Her son is 6; she lives with him in Miramar.

During treatment, Nugent noticed not everyone had the support they needed. When she met a woman who was riding the bus home after chemo, she knew she had to help. After losing her job as a Liberty Mutual auditor, she spent her severance pay to start Bionic Girls, a non-profit organization in Pembroke Pines.

The Bionic Girls’ volunteers help patients who are being treated at Memorial Regional or Memorial West Hospital in Broward. The nonprofit offers transportation, prescription pick-ups and house cleaning. To raise money, Nugent is selling the books she wrote after her cancer diagnosis: Mommy is Still Mommy: Cancer Can’t Change That, The Road to Prosperity: Let Your Passion Lead the Way and Declarations of a Survivor: A Guided Journal for Motivation, Encouragement & Strength.

“When you hear the desperation in some of these women’s voices you just can’t turn them away,” said Nugent, 43. “When they see me, they light up, they hug me and they tell me how blessed they are to have met me. That is my reward. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

The Caribbean American Democratic Club of Broward County recently awarded her the “community service” award for her work.

“She is an exceptional woman and we are grateful for what she has done for the betterment of the community,” said the Rev. Melville B. Herron, the club’s president.

PINK ENTREPRENEUR

At a lounge in South Beach, Rhonda Smith, a former marketing consultant for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, introduced herself as a breast cancer survivor.

“Miami-Dade County has the highest rate of breast cancer mortality rate in the state, the highest rate of late stage diagnosis and the highest rate of uninsured women,” she told the audience of 100 or so partygoers who were imbibing complimentary pink glow cocktails and pink water under neon lights.

She wore a see-through white striped blouse and blue jeans to host the youthful event. There were women wearing pastel pink corsets and bubble gum pink angel-feathered wings, and a glitzy pop-up shop offering jewelry, make-up and purses. The funds raised were to support her friend Andrea Ivory — a breast cancer survivor who earned the CNN Hero award in 2009 for going door-to-door in low-income Miami neighborhoods to help uninsured women get free mammograms. These are the efforts Smith markets now.

The Virginia executive moved to Miami Beach from Boston about a decade ago in search of relaxation. Before she was diagnosed in 2008, she traveled often, worked long hours, often skipped meals and did not exercise.

In 2010, Smith founded Breast Cancer Partner, a for-profit organization that develops survivorship programs for healthcare centers. She focuses on helping women who have completed treatment to treat side effects with alternative methodologies such as acupuncture and Tai Chi. Her work brings in about $100,000 annually, she says. She also organizes events to promote yoga, meditation and healthy eating.

She has partnered with the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Miller School of Medicine to recruit and coach black breast cancer survivors, as part of a study to evaluate their quality of life. The National Institutes of Health/The National Cancer Institute (NCI) funded the study.

“Black women with low-income often don’t have access to proper care. They are less likely to get breast cancer than white women, but they have a higher breast cancer death rate,” Smith said. “We have to address the specific challenges facing South Florida’s diverse black women.”

A FIERY FIGHTER

Many already viewed Bibiana Salmon, an Ecuadorian who has lived in Doral for about two decades, with admiration when she was diagnosed with breast cancer on 2010.

Judging from her resilience — as a homeowner who lost it all to Hurricane Andrew, as an American Cancer Society activist after becoming a widow, and as a fierce mom on a hunger strike for a week to protest cuts at her daughters’ public school — breast cancer had a willful enemy.

Salmon’s career trajectory led her from working as a clinical psychologist to running an international freight-forwarding business after her husband, Alberto Spencer, died of melanoma in 1998. She closed the business in 2002 to focus on raising their two daughters.

“Two weeks after his diagnosis, the cancer had spread to his brain, bones, lungs and stomach. The tumors in his brain caused a respiratory arrest. He was 38,” Salmon said. “Tabitha was 4 and Camille was going to turn 6. He died before her birthday party and told me not to cancel it. We didn’t.”

In 2005, Salmon wed retired Navy Capt. Steven Wetzel, who works at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral. A year later, the American Cancer Society recognized her and her daughters for their outreach and lobbying efforts on behalf of the Society.

She never imagined that one day she would be telling her daughters that she too had cancer. It was “the toughest time” of her life, she said.

When she underwent treatment last year, her mother, a breast cancer survivor, and her father, a lung cancer survivor, were by her side. She remembers being a teen when her mother had surgery to remove her breast. Now it was her turn. She is planning to undergo reconstruction surgery later this year.

The denouement: She is running for a Doral City Council seat in November, and her daughters are studying to become doctors to continue their fight against cancer. Tabitha, 18, is at Yale University and Camille, 20, is at Brown University.

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