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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Diary of a Survivor

Posted By: Advancing Care

One Woman shares how relying on her medical team – and her new husband – helped her overcome an advanced form of breast cancer.

By Stephanie Wander

I met my current husband, Alex, in 2004, when we both worked at a luxury-car dealership. I was in the business office, and he was the parts manager. Alex likes to tell people: “It was love at first sight. I never stopped thinking about her.” We went through a lot to be together.

In 2012, we moved into a 275-year-old farmhouse in Chester and got married there on our front porch in October 2013, blending our two families into one with our four children.

The summer before our wedding, I noticed the shape of my breast was abnormal but didn’t mention it during my regular annual checkup. It became slightly worse, but I had to be ready for the wedding, finish up year-end work reports and take a business trip to Germany before I went to a March 2014 doctor’s appointment.

When my doctor advised me to see a breast specialist, I turned to Karen Karsif, MD, the Medical Director at the Center for Breast Health at Good Samaritan Hospital [a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth)]. I chose her without hesitation because she had treated my mom for a different type of cancer. I knew if something was wrong, she was the doctor I wanted to see. After my biopsy in early April, Dr. Karsif told me I had invasive lobular carcinoma which spread to my lymph nodes. I knew something was wrong — my breast was swollen; my nipple had retracted; and my nodes were large — but it’s still unreal being told you have cancer. I was very quiet and felt numb. After a few minutes, I remember saying, “Okay, what do we have to do to get rid of this?”

Dr. Karsif recommended I undergo chemotherapy treatments first, to shrink the tumor and nodes before doing a lumpectomy or mastectomy. She said that due to the size of my tumor and the node involvement, if she had operated first, I would definitely have had a mastectomy. Most women I’ve met choose mastectomy first, then chemo. They want to get the cancer out. But I went with Dr. Karsif’s advice.

“It is possible to find your soulmate,” Stephanie advises. “The happiness and love are just incredible. You know you have the strength to handle anything.”

Alex went with me to all my doctor’s appointments, chemo and radiation treatments, and support-group meetings. Even though he knows I’m a very independent, strong woman, he said letting me go alone “wasn’t an option.”

I expected to lose my hair, but I was really surprised when I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, too. Losing my nails, however, was horribly upsetting, even worse for me. I didn’t realize they would turn brown and fall off. When my hair started falling out, Alex and I shaved each other’s heads. We went through everything together.

After 16 rounds of chemo, with my tumor nearly gone, Dr. Karsif performed a lumpectomy on November 11, 2014.

I had clear margins, and she removed nine cancerous lymph nodes. The follow- up month of radiation was the thing I disliked most about all of it. For 30 days, five days a week, I had to lie in a mold with tattooed blue dots on me.

In my support group, I had what I needed: an incredible group of women. What struck me most in meetings was how different every woman is. Some told no one. Some wanted to do it alone. Others had no support. Even though I had strong support from Alex, our four children, my parents and my three sisters, my personal challenge was learning to let Alex help me.

If I had to give anyone advice, I’d say find a doctor like Dr. Karsif if you can or actually go to her. I trusted her 100 percent. Also, let people help you. Lots of women have chemo, then come home, make dinner and do the laundry. For many women, telling someone no, or saying, “I want to be alone,” or “I need to sleep,” or “I need to rest,” is difficult. But you really need to take care of you first.

Alex and I agree that breast cancer could test a marriage, but he says that any barriers we may have had are gone. He never shied away from anything because of his fear. He was strong for me.

“Alex and I have become amateur bird photographers – we have so many types of birds around our house,” says Stephanie.

Today, we enjoy doing everything together. We were just looking for barred owls in the woods by our lake. We like to go birding, hiking and spend time on our boat, fishing, but home is our oasis.

From the beginning, I vowed cancer wouldn’t define my life. Sometimes I’ll see a TV ad for a chemo shot and think about it, but I don’t live it every day. Now, I just look forward to making my five- year mark, my 10-year mark …

And I know I will.

Whole-Person Care

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second- leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.

“Getting an annual mammogram is vitally important,” states Karen Karsif, MD, FACS, Medical Director at The Center for Breast Health at Good Samaritan Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth). “Many women think breast cancer is hereditary, but that’s true only 10 percent of the time.”

Despite recurring reports about breast cancer’s supposed causes — including underwire bras, antiperspirants, eating meat — Dr. Karsif says, “Unfortunately it’s not that simple. People ask, ‘Do I need to change my diet?’ I tell them they just need to eat healthy. You have no control over this, and that’s a huge emotional challenge.

“At Good Samaritan Hospital, we also take care of the emotional side,” says Dr. Karsif. “Our breast cancer support group is very active, and patients really help each other. We care about the whole patient, kids, family, jobs, everything.”

Dr. Karsif goes on to explain that breast cancer is especially complex because of fears of losing one’s attractiveness, femininity or identity. “I tell everyone they’ll experience PTSD; they’ll see something, and it will take them back,” she says.

“The unknown is the worst thing,” Dr. Karsif continues. “Our support group is tremendously strong and sharing. It’s a safe haven to talk about things. Many women cry because it’s the first place they feel totally comfortable. When a woman is facing mastectomy or reconstruction, group veterans, who once felt terrified themselves, offer support and are a resource for the woman.”