In 2008, the Ventura County Reporter interviewed and photographed a group of women who were in the fight of their lives battling breast cancer. Some of those patients have recovered, some have died because of the cancer. Others seem to be in a perpetual serial crisis, conquering breast cancer only to have it reappear in another form.
Seven years later, well past the established survival time of five years, some of these women returned to speak with VCReporter. Their stories of the time in between are very different but the common thread of breast cancer and the difficulties of treatment bind them together.
Of the newly diagnosed cases of breast cancer, 61 percent are spotted during the early stages while the cancer is still confined to the primary site, according to Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER), a statistical program of the National Cancer Institute.
Those patients have an astounding five-year survival rate of 98.6 percent. Another 32 percent of patients will discover the cancer while it is regional, which indicates some lymph nodes are involved. The five-year survival rate for that group is nearly 85 percent.
There is some good news in this; the survival rate has increased substantially over the past several decades. In 1975, the five-year survival rate was 75.2 percent. In 2007, that rate had risen to 91 percent.
Ventura County had 570 cases of breast cancer last year, according to the 2014 California Cancer Facts and Figures Report. Ninety-five patients will die from the disease. There are 58 counties in the state and Ventura County is alarmingly high, clocking in at number 12 in the state. It is not known exactly why Ventura County has such a high rate of breast cancer.
From left to right, (standing) Michelle Cyr, Ventura, three lumpectomies, double mastectomy (not locatable); Lisa Barreto, Ventura; Sherrie McNellis, Camarillo, lumpectomy (not locatable); Mary Ellen Sheets, Camarillo, deceased 2008; Donna Iverson, Ventura; Debbie Eckman Boross, Simi Valley; (sitting) Sylvia Rosolek, Ventura; Lesley Paarmann, Santa Barbara, double mastectomy, lung removed (not locatable).
Lisa Barreto: take them both
Lisa of Ventura has struggled with multiple diagnoses and has bounced around the oncology medical world since 2002. She does not believe that she has affected her prognosis by beginning treatment early.
“You know that saying that early detection saves lives?” Lisa asked. “It kinda makes me sick because it doesn’t necessarily save lives. It gets you into the system a lot earlier but you can still have more diagnoses of cancer along the way.”
Lisa’s journey began in 2002 with a mastectomy and reconstruction. She was pleased with the results until 2012, when she was diagnosed with cancer in the other breast. After reconstruction, cancer showed up in the mastectomy scar.
“Had I known then what I know now, I probably would have had the other breast removed right from the start,” Lisa said. “You can’t forecast the future.”
When doctors have differing opinions on life-and-death issues, deciding which path to travel can be confusing and frustrating for the patient. Lisa had three doctors with differing opinions.
“One (doctor) said, if I was concerned about it, stick a needle in it. By the time I had it biopsied, it was deep cancer.
“Here’s what I have to pass on about my experiences. I don’t care what you (the doctors) think it is, if you want to know what it is, stick a needle in it.”
After another battery of tests, Lisa found herself at her orthopedic surgeon’s office. The results of her PET scan were up and, upon seeing them, “I just fell apart,” she said. “The cancer was in four or five places.”
Lisa underwent a modified radical mastectomy during which the doctors pulled out 34 lymph nodes. It happened last April and she still has a raw nerve. “It was a nightmare and the nightmare was happening to me,” she said. “I told them I wanted it all off. Take them both.”
The lab results were online so, once again, Lisa read the results before her doctor had a chance. “What I saw in the report was that 17 of the 34 lymph nodes were malignant. That puts me in Stage 3. I’ll never know if the delay caused any of that,” referring to the doctors not removing her other breast.
Through it all, Lisa has somehow kept her sense of humor. Her hair fell out all at once so her elaborate plans to ease into the next phase were out the window. She went to the hair stylist, bringing her new wig with her.
Lisa admitted she struggles with what still awaits her. “I could die from this. I can’t predict the future. I don’t want to go to my gut feeling because I try to live on a day-to-day basis.”
Donna Iverson: Expertise through experience
Donna is a single mother of three teenage girls. While raising them as a single mother, she was forced to deal with one crisis after another.
“I had two bouts of breast cancer and now I have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Seven years later I got breast cancer again,” Donna said. It had been hiding in her chest wall and under her arm.
“So many myths with women thinking they have had their breasts removed so they can’t get it,” she said.
The lymphoma is in Donna’s abdominal cavity. “I went through two full rounds of chemo and nothing changed. In three years it has not spread, but it has not gone away.”
As Donna continued to struggle with the cancers, shingles struck. It is on her torso and one leg.
“It’s uncomfortable and I keep having a spot that comes up on my chest. I can’t get rid of it. I’ve had it for about six months. My liver now is damaged from all of the chemo. Having cancer all these years, the toll it takes on the body, it is tremendous.”
Yet, with all of these harrowing medical issues, one other aspect of life is causing Donna real misery.
“You know what gets me right now is, I am still struggling financially,” she said. “I just don’t have that much energy to go out there and work a third job. That probably causes more stress than anything.”
As it piles up, Donna can’t help but consider her own mortality. “There was a time when, with the lymphoma, and it wasn’t going away, I was thinking quite a lot about death. Was this my time? I don’t think that way anymore. I’m actually having nice thoughts about the future. Thinking about the future was something I did not do. But now my children are getting older, I’m seeing them grow up. I’ll be able to meet my grandchildren probably. That’s what I’m thinking about.”
Perhaps even the most upbeat person can descend into dark thoughts when confronted with two kinds of cancer and shingles.
“It’s exhausting. Sometimes I get a little depressed,” she said. “Sometimes I get tired of living but I don’t want the alternative. I think, ‘Oh my gosh, another day, another stage to overcome, another problem,’ and so on.”
Sylvia Rosolek: Giving back
Life for Sylvia Rosolek, 68, of Ventura, is pretty normal. She is still working and plans to retire next year. Sylvia is well past the point of danger from her breast cancer. Her life appears to be indistinguishable from that of any other woman, one who has never had cancer. But it wasn’t always so easy.
“Being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and going through treatment was devastating and life altering,” she said. “I’m doing great now. I have no health issues.”
In fact, Sylvia’s life veered off in another direction when she got breast cancer and, for that, she is grateful.
“It was a negative that turned into a positive experience because of all the growth and good that resulted afterwards,” she said.
Sylvia is referring to her involvement with Ribbons for Life, Ventura. It is an all- purpose support group with one activity that stands out. It is the bimonthly takeover of a restaurant for the event called BreastFest. The turnout is sometimes more than 75 women.
“I have been with Ribbons for Life for 12 years’. I’m currently serving as vice president,” Sylvia said. “It’s such an honor to serve women with breast cancer, along with their families, in Ventura County.”
Sylvia said one aspect of her life was indispensable. “I try to stay balanced in my life, with my faith first and foremost, followed by my family, work, serving others, and some play time thrown in for good measure.”
Echoing the sage advice offered up by all of the women in the 2008 article, Sylvia emphasized the importance of personal involvement.
“We must be our own health advocate, do your research and stay involved in the decisions that have to be made.”
Debbie Eckman Boross: random occurrence
Debbie Eckman Boross was blindsided by her cancer. The hard-charging nature of her cancer nearly killed her. “I had a very aggressive cancer and I was told I was lucky to make it into surgery. My tumor had doubled its size in a month.”
Debbie went through 10 months of treatment consisting of chemotherapy before her surgery, surgery, chemotherapy after surgery and 35 radiation treatments. She believed the worst would happen because her diagnosis was so frightening.
“During the beginning of this, I would go to bed every night and get up every morning and I would be in awe that I was alive the next morning because the diagnosis was so heavy. I would feel that heaviness when I went to sleep and when I woke up in the morning,” she said.
Debbie believed she would never see her sons graduate from high school. “Both my sons are married and I just had my first grandbaby. It is so magical.”
It was the randomness of the disease that haunted Debbie. “It is random if you’re going to get it (breast cancer). It’s random if you’re going to get an occurrence. It’s random as to who is going to be in remission.”
Despite the ferocious nature of her tumor, Debbie has no explanation for her outcome. “Here I am, 13 years out, not taking the maintenance medication, and no reoccurrence. Here we are again talking about the word ‘random.’ ”
Her personal life has been equally positive. “I remarried in 2005. A lot of marriages fall apart during breast cancer. We celebrate our 10th anniversary this month.”
BATTLE NO MORE
Kristen R. Perry: dead animal theory 1960 – 2014
Kristen was a native of Ventura. Her breast cancer was discovered when bathing with her young niece. It was Stage 4. Even more frightening, her scans revealed the cancer had invaded her bones and ovaries.
Kristen’s reaction was typical of her ability to find humor in the darkest places.
“I did have my ovaries removed,” Kristen told the VCReporter in 2008. “I’ve got a few more body parts I can do without, but when it gets to my heart, I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble.’ ”
Explaining her openness to alternative medicine, Kristen said, “I’d wear a dead animal around my neck if I thought it would help.”
After her diagnosis, Kristen immersed herself in helping others with breast cancer through underwriting a benefit concert called Rock the Cure. Kristen wanted to spare women at their most vulnerable the huge task of figuring out how to manage their cancer.
Mary Ellen Sheets: Showing up with a brave face 1954 – 2009
Mary Ellen Sheets of Camarillo could have faced death alone. But because she had no family in the area, some of these other women opened their arms to her and cared for her throughout her decline. In 2008, some of these women posed topless, modestly covering up with their hands, and Mary Ellen was right there.
Shortly before Mary Ellen’s death, some of the women arranged a tea party with the group wearing tea-party hats. Each posed for a photo taken with Mary Ellen. Her love of Scotland, romance novels, sewing and being with friends are the memories that live on.
From diagnosis to death in just days
Rona Marie Gonzalez of Ventura was a healthy and very active mother, the kind of mother who jumped in and could be counted on to participate in the PTA, lead a Girl Scout troop, be a youth group leader at her church, preschool board member and swim instructor. She was not the kind of person one would think of as sick.
“My mom got regular mammograms every year,” Camille Gonzalez said. “She would go in for her scans and she was such a healthy individual. We didn’t know how long she’d had that tumor or how quickly it had metastasized.”
On Jan. 15, Gonzalez passed away from breast cancer, one week after she was diagnosed. It had quickly traveled to her liver, where it was lethal. Gonzalez left behind two daughters, Camille and Sara, both young adults.
The daughters point to the difficulty posed by dense breast tissue, where tumors can hide from detection by a mammogram. If you know you have dense tissue, an ultrasound can pick up the tumor.
Sara Gonzalez is in medical school. She wondered, if she had been further along in her education, whether she might have picked up some clues that could have led to treatment. She said her mother had been talking about stomach problems before her diagnosis of breast cancer.
“I told her, ‘Mom, you should go in. You should get seen,’ ” Sara said. “I didn’t put two and two together that the stomach discomfort she was having was a mass effect from liver enlargement. And I didn’t realize that the most common cancers will metastasize to the liver, one of which is breast cancer. I can look back and say, ‘Wow, I missed these things.’ ”
Both daughters offered the same advice. “Take initiative in your own care,” Sara said. “People involved in your health care can only help you as much as you help them.
When you have the feeling that something is wrong, your intuition is probably right.”
“Don’t be the strong person who thinks they are going to get better or something feels wrong and you wait until it feels better,” Camille added. “That’s not going to help if it is something serious.”
Sara Gonzalez summed up her experience. “When you go through things, you tend to underestimate the amount of love you have in your life before you go through something that is trying or traumatic or devastating. The amount of love that does surround is very beautiful and overwhelming.”