Breast Cancer Awareness

My Breast Cancer: Survivors share their stories

Clockwise from top left, cancer survivors Laurie Connors, Carla Hill, Colleen Beem, Cheryl Watson, George Bradley and Dianne Williams.
Clockwise from top left, cancer survivors Laurie Connors, Carla Hill, Colleen Beem, Cheryl Watson, George Bradley and Dianne Williams.

Every night, Cheryl Watson kisses her three children goodnight. The day she was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer, her son asked her when she was going to die.

That snapped her out of her dark cloud.

“You don’t get to feel sorry for yourself,” said Watson, 52. “Not when you have kids.”

What she didn’t tell her son was that the same question ran through her head that morning when her doctor delivered the news.

Her father died of lung cancer when she was 19, six months after his diagnosis.

“It was a death sentence,” she said.

Nowadays, the rate of survivorship is “increasing significantly,” said Dr. Alejandra Perez, a breast oncologist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth — University of Miami Health System.

While the rate of breast cancer has remained steady — approximately one in eight will develop invasive breast cancer, according to the American Breast Cancer Foundation — advances in research and treatment ensure that more people live longer, better lives.

Doctors no longer just attack the cancer, they help patients deal with the side effects of the treatments, like “chemo brain,” memory and loss of focus after chemotherapy treatments.

“This is the era of personalized medicine,” she said. “We’re not treating everybody the same.”

Tailored treatments, a new focus in research, enhance the patients’ quality of life by reducing the chemo and radiation.

“Chemo doesn’t discriminate. It kills the good and the bad,” Perez said. “We identify targets and send the chemo right to the target.”

Another top idea is immunotherapy, which Perez said will show up more in the near future. “The idea behind it is we get our own immune system to attack the cancer cells,” she said.

Watson, like other survivors, said she’s noticed the change.

“Two years ago you used to know someone who knew someone who had breast cancer; now you know someone directly,” she said. “It’s so much different now than it was 15 years ago.”

Sharon Radell, 52, had three types of cancer in her breast. After undergoing a mastectomy, she's lived 10 years cancer free. She discusses a life of balancing parenthood, career and the required healing.

Finds joy in life

Carla Hill hashtags her Instagrams #brstlssbeauty because she is a breastless beauty.

Breast cancer took her breasts in 2005 and 2007, and a disease “with a long German name” took her kidney in 2000.

Hill finds that without all those parts she’s lighter, and it makes it even easier to dance to the Soca music during Miami’s Carnival, which gives her great joy.

In middle school, Hill used to cut out pictures of fashionable people from Elle and Vogue. Now, she plays around with fashion, going flat chested for weeks at a time and then suddenly filling out her Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress perfectly.

“I put my breasts on if the dress calls for it; they’re like earrings now,” said Hill, 43.

Her secret? The super molded push-up cups from Victoria’s Secret.

“You don’t even need a prosthesis under it,” she said.

Hill hopes to show other survivors and women that you can be fashionable without breasts. But Hill cautions she’s not trying to be “Oprah of the breastless,” when she goes bare.

Hill, who traces her family lineage to Trinidad and Tobago, has found lessons to share from cancer.

She finds the “strong black woman” trope, thrust upon black women, empowering.

“It’s a wonderful sentiment; we should be told that we’re powerful,” Hill said. “You can be powerful but still need to experience these emotions.”

Cancer taught Hill about expressing her emotion. A solid ugly cry does the soul good, she said.

“Cancer is not something you should want to experience,” she said. “It really sucks. It’s hard. It breaks you down. Those are real life things you should sit and cry about sometimes.”

Hill is thankful her college sweetheart and husband, attorney Marlon Hill, “whom I love and adore,” has been there to support her for all those tearful moments.

When she first saw Marlon at Florida State University, she said it was love at first sight. The pair were engaged by the time they graduated. And when she learned that complications from a kidney transplant rendered her unable to have children, he stood by her side.

“He didn’t make me feel like it was a necessary part of being together,” she said. “We’re getting married because we love each other.”

Marlon’s latest contribution was to suggest that Hill and her family up their support at the Susan G. Komen walks they did for Hill’s mother, a breast cancer survivor. Their group, the D’limers, went from five people to 200 last year, with $10,000 raised for research.

“He used something that really devastated our family to really uplift other women and men,” Hill said.

Boosted her faith

The most important thing Dianne Williams learned from breast cancer was to trust in God.

“Especially with a Type A personality, you want to control everything, but it’s a higher power that has control,” she said.

Before her ductal carcinoma, Williams, 57, was the kind of person who generally didn’t think about God after church. Now, she sets aside time to pray every day.

Williams found a small, painless lump in her breast eight years ago. After poking, prodding and scans, her doctor removed the lump. Williams laughs at her worries then, a fear of anesthesia and scarring.

“How vain,” she said.

When she “bounced back” into the doctor’s office for removal of her stitches a few weeks later, she didn’t consider breast cancer a possibility. Why would she? She was healthy and had no family history.

But the doctor gave her the results of the biopsy; she had breast cancer. Her world went in slow motion.

“In that moment I was talking to my God while the doctor was talking in technical terms,” she said.

In her darkest moment, Williams asked, “Why me?” But “that lasted like a split second.”

Then, she made a decision: No more woe is me.

“I can’t go down that road,” she said. “Thank you, God, for opening my eyes to how you’re the one in control.”

It was traumatic for Williams to release control when the chemo started its side effects. One day a giant clump of her hair (her “mane”) fell off while brushing. She had her son take her to a barber the next day to get her head shaved.

Freshly shorn, Williams walked outside without a hat, and a woman in an SUV pulled up.

She learned out the window and shouted, “Miss, if every bald woman looked as beautiful as you, I’d go bald today.”

Williams said her goal is to be that kind of person for new survivors, offering compliments, wisdom and inspiration.

“I really believe it was God’s way of strengthening my faith,” Williams said.

Photos that tell a story

Right after she had her head shaved, Margie Gelber laid on a black velvet blanket surrounded by rose petals.

From a ladder up above, Susan Buzzi rained down compliments.

‘You’re beautiful,” she said, snapping photo after photo. “You look great.”

The first look in the mirror after the photo shoot felt like a splash of cold water, said Gelber, 61, but “it was so nice to have that transition from positivity from her to reality.”

Reality in Gelber’s case was breast cancer, her first of four occurrences in 15 years.

She was one of Buzzi’s earlier photo subjects in her eight-year project documenting breast cancer survivors. The portraits, on display at Art Frenzie in Wilton Manors, are in Buzzi’s signature black and white film, which she processes in her laundry room.

On the gallery wall, one color photo pops out, taken the week before the show. Susanne Jorgensen, 56, poses, arms outstretched in a triumphant V, in front of the ocean. Her bikini is pink.

Even in the more austere tones, women are equally joyous. They grin with friends, relatives, nutritionists and caretakers. They pose in their bedrooms, in parks, or, like Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in their offices.

“It’s so much more than taking their pictures,” Buzzi said.

In the eight years, Buzzi has photographed more than 400 men and women, all breast cancer survivors .

She also published a collection of her photos and the stories that accompany them in her book, I Am a Strong Woman.

Buzzi met Bernadette Zizzo at Broward Health. Zizzo, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, invited Buzzi to attend her double mastectomy the next week.

Buzzi shot the surgery and a profile of Zizzo afterwards, and the two became fast friends.

Zizzo, co-owner of Art Frenzie, is gearing up for reconstructive surgery next week.

As soon as she recovers, Zizzo said she plans to make a big, pink splash. Her goal is to start a category for the Guinness Book of World Records: largest human pink ribbon. She wants to raise awareness so more people get themselves checked.

Zizzo, who identifies as a lesbian, said experiencing breast cancer in the LGBTQ+ community is weird but funny.

“Butch women always say ‘I want your chest,’ ” she said. “And gay men get confused and fall in love with me.”

Finding strength from family

When she got the call from her doctor, Laurie Connors didn’t make it to work that day.

She drove straight to her brother’s house. When he answered the door she told him, “I have breast cancer” and made a beeline for her 6-year-old niece’s bed. Word spread, and her family came to comfort her.

“The tears were just gone,” said Connors, 49. “There was never a doubt that I would get through it with their strength.”

It was hard for Connors, to reconcile that she, a healthy 40-year-old with no family history and no risk factors, was one of “those women,” that is, the women who wore head scarves, did races and shared their stories.

On the day of her mastectomy, her father showed up with a gift — a little teddy bear.

“You just feel that love and you carry that love forward,” she said.

When she learned she still needed chemotherapy, Connors walked out of the doctor’s office in a haze.

One of “those women,” a young woman in a headscarf, came shooting in from the next room, where breast cancer patients were awaiting treatment. She swept Connors into a tight hug and told her she was going to be OK.

“We just do this,” the woman said.

She never saw that woman again or found out her name, but Connors said she’ll never forget her.

“That one moment filled me with the strength I needed to get through it,” Connors said.

Connors smiles when she remembers her naive question early on in her journey:

“I asked survivors, ‘When does it get easier?’

They told me: ‘It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.’

A sense of humor

George Bradley Jr. has a motto: “Check your pecs.”

His wife coined the phrase after Bradley’s bout with breast cancer in 2011.

After feeling a sharp pain in his chest while showering, Bradley, 69, mentioned it at his next doctor’s appointment. The doctor led him to a women’s care center for a mammogram, then a women’s imaging center for another mammogram and an ultrasound.

Thus began Bradley’s journey into his “world of pink.”

“I was sort of shocked,” he said. “I really had never heard of male breast cancer before.”

That’s a fair assessment, as men are 100 times less likely to have breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

“It was kind of a strange experience putting on a pink nightie and walking around various testing facilities,” he said. “I told the doctors that someone oughta afford a few blue robes.”

Bradley said it was important to him to keep his sense of humor throughout the experience. He was guided by a close-knit group of friends and relatives and a carefully selected team of doctors and surgeons.

He got a mastectomy and went through 20 chemotherapy treatments and 28 radiation treatments.

“I went on with my life,” he said.

Work as a resort and ferry consultant helped him keep his mind occupied, he said. That and the support of another male survivor, an older dentist, helped Bradley keep moving.

Now that he’s come through the other side cancer free (“Thank the good Lord, yes.”), Bradley plans to start his own foundation by next Fathers’ Day: The George Bradley Jr. Male Breast Cancer Foundation.

Bradley began raising awareness and research money early on by participating in the Komen race and even modeling for Memorial Regional Hospital in Broward.

He said he hopes his foundation will encourage others to persuade their older male relatives to get checked out.

“I think that’s what it takes,” he said. “The loving concern of a family member saying ‘Hey, I met this fellow and he had a pain. . . . He took it to his doctor and now he’s alive. I think you should get yourself checked out.”

Bradley’s almost all set, he even has the color picked out for his foundation — periwinkle blue.

Calming the children

When she found out she had breast cancer, Colleen Beem bought Champagne.

Of course, that wasn’t her immediate reaction.

Beem got her first mammogram at 40, so she thought the number of pictures and scrutiny were normal. She was calm through the biopsy, until she saw her doctor.

“I was very calm until I saw his face,” she said. He explained there was a strong possibility she might have breast cancer.

Beem, 52, got the official diagnosis over the phone later. She fell to the floor, weeping.

When her husband got home she was still sobbing.

“We’re gonna do this,” he told her. “We’re gonna get through this.”

He took to the Internet (which, in retrospect, Beem admits, wasn’t a great idea) and found out that her diagnosis of Stage One wasn’t the worst on the spectrum.

To celebrate, she went out and bought a bottle of bubbly. She called her sister with the news of her diagnosis and her celebration. “I have Stage One cancer!” she proclaimed.

Her sister questioned the enthusiasm. “But, you have cancer?”

“Yeah, but it’s better than Stage Four,” Beem replied.

Through treatment, Beem tried to hide the constant vomiting from her 2-year-old son and twin 18-month-old girls by using different bathrooms and closing the door. But her son always came running to the rescue, asking “Mommy, mommy, are you OK?”

Beem grins when she remembers her son’s curiosity. One day in school her son’s class was learning about emergencies and calling 9-1-1.

He raised his hand and asked who he should call if his mommy kept throwing up because she had cancer.

Like most, Beem lost her hair during chemo.

The first day Beem got her wig, she had it put on and all her makeup done up for a function. She still hadn’t looked in the mirror when she got home and in bed with her husband.

She turned and asked him, “With or without the wig?”

His answer was simple.

“Without,” he said. “I love you unconditionally.”

If you go

What: Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure

When: Saturday, registration, 6 a.m.; survivor procession, 7:30 a.m.; 5K timed run, 8:45 a.m.; 5K non-timed walk/run, 9 a.m.

Where: Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Cost: 5K Run (Timed): $40; 5K Walk/Run (Untimed): $35; One-Mile Fun Run: $35; Children’s Walk/Run, ages 8 and up: $20; Tot Run, ages 2-7: $10. Costs increase by $5 on race day, except for children and tots.

For information, contact Mike Connor at 954-909-0456 or mike@komenmiaftl.org or visit www.komenmiaftl.org.

Susan Buzzi’s Exhibits:

All month, Buzzi's work will be on display at The Uncommon Gallery, 2713 E. Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, and Art Frenzie, 2151 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors.

Share Your Story

Email your breast cancer story to Alex Harris at aharris@miamiherald.com

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