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Courier-Post: Local breast cancer patients go from strangers to friends during treatment

Editor’s Note: The following article originally ran in the Courier-Post on October 7, 2013.

Local breast cancer patients go from strangers to friends during treatment

Oct. 6, 2013

Written by Sally Friedman | For the Courier-Post

It wasn’t a sound you’d expect to hear in the chemo room at Cooper University Hospital’s Cancer Center in Voorhees: laughter.

It came from several women, all diagnosed with breast cancer, who had found one another during breast cancer treatment.

In the process, they found comfort and solace.

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be devastating. For many women, it leads to a sense of bewilderment, anxiety and fear.
For several South Jersey women, a difficult period in their lives will always call to mind connections — some permanent — made during chemo.

Buddy system

“It’s a really amazing bond that’s hard to explain but easy to feel,” says Mary Ann Todd, the majority owner of an electronics company. The 63-year-old’s breast cancer diagnosis came eight years ago this month.

“I went for a routine mammogram and my cancer was found early — but at the very time, my husband was battling terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The day I got out of the hospital after a mastectomy, he went in.”

Six weeks later, Todd’s husband died.

“It was an awful time, and at first, I tended to withdraw,” she recalls. “My family lived in another state, so I was mainly supported by close friends and my church, the Marlton Assembly of God.”

At the time, chemo was not strongly recommended for Todd because of the early diagnosis. After all she had been through, she chose not to pursue it.

“I really needed to put my life back together . . .”

But one year later, Todd got the news the cancer had spread to her liver, requiring extensive chemotherapy. She nearly decided against it — willing to surrender.

But she had just reunited with her first boyfriend (who would become her second husband), and he strongly urged her to go for further treatment.

So began 25 weeks of visits to Cooper’s Cancer Center.

“My experience was amazing in many ways. I never suffered — my body reacted well to the treatment and I never missed a day of work,” she recalls.
And Todd, who still takes oral chemo treatments, met other “warriors” who have become treasured friends.

‘Terrifying’

Karen Schaefer of Sicklerville was a healthy woman — a pediatric nurse — with no family history of breast cancer. Yet in 2006, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer with extreme complications, and a spread to her liver. It later traveled to her brain.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” said the 47-year-old mother of two, who remembers thinking, ‘I’m 40 years old. I can’t give up — I have to be there for my children.’ ”

Survival was not easy.

Schaefer began chemotherapy at Cooper and battled side effects that were sometimes debilitating. She still faces new challenges after having a mastectomy and reconstruction several years ago.

But there was one “side effect” that was wonderfully unexpected — and still is.

During a chemo treatment, Schaefer began a conversation with several other patients. One was Todd. The other was even younger than Schaefer.

Caren Kaufman — just 37 when diagnosed in 2006 — was one of those chemo room women. She, too, remembers that unusual meeting.

“It was mind-boggling at the time. I was working part time,” said Kaufman, a clinical social worker. “And although I tend to be optimistic, this was a terrible shock.”

Her course of treatment was mastectomy and reconstruction, but a recurrence came in 2008. During that treatment, Kaufman noticed women talking during their chemo sessions, and they seemed so remarkably upbeat.

“There was an immediate sense of comfort — we exchanged phone numbers and really connected from the start,” Kaufman notes. “In a weird way, it made me look forward to treatment, and to seeing them.”

Schaefer’s husband, who almost always accompanied her to treatment, picked up on the vibe among his wife, Todd and Kaufman. He suggested they take their friendship beyond the chemo room.

Now, each describes the bond they feel as, ironically, indescribable.

“These are people who have been down the same road,” Todd explains.

“Of course, every case is different, but the feelings are so often the same. And when one of us runs into a rough time, we can understand in a different way, a deeply personal way.”

‘I fell apart’

Donna Forman of Cherry Hill can relate.

The upbeat Cherry Hill mother of three daughters, including one with special needs, was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago at 48.

She discovered a lump in her breast while visiting a daughter who was spending some time in Israel.
Forman remembers the instant terror.

“I fell apart when I got the diagnosis. I always try to keep a strong exterior, but my first worry was about my girls. They needed me, and I just had to be OK for them.”

So Forman faced her fears, had a lumpectomy and followed up with a year of chemo.

“It wasn’t a walk in the park,” she admits. “And I hated losing my hair, which I think is a very common reaction. But very soon, I stopped asking ‘Why me?’ and started asking ‘Why not me?’

“This happens to one out of every eight women.”

Like so many others, Forman can’t say enough about the breast cancer community and of the bonding that she, too, found at Cooper.
Like Todd, she now is active in Pink Roses Teal Magnolias, organized and founded by Susan Bass Levin, a cancer survivor and now the president and CEO of the Cooper Foundation.

The organization raises awareness of breast and gynecological cancers and supports cancer research and clinical programs at Cooper.

This year, both Forman and Todd are co-chairwomen of the organization’s fourth annual event Oct. 27 at the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia-Cherry Hill hotel.
Forman sums up her reasons for committing time and energy to such causes.

“Hearing the words ‘You’ve got cancer’ can be the scariest moment in a woman’s life. And the loneliest.

“But when you find yourself surrounded by women who start out as total strangers and become dear friends, you realize that you’re not alone and you’re not lost,” Forman adds.

“And that gives you the strength and the courage to go on.”