Fifteen years ago, The Gazette interviewed six breast cancer patients. The women had different surgeries and treatments, they were different ages and led different lives, but each shared their story to help other women learn about breast cancer.
Draped in pink fabric, the six brave women also posed for individual photos that appeared on Page One as “Portraits of Survival,” from Oct. 1 to Oct. 3, 1995.
On the first day, there were Doreen Gabriele of Guilderland and Cynthia Shaw Isdell of Delmar; on the second day, Debi Tebano of Niskayuna and Claudette Martin-Howard of Schenectady; and on the third day, Elsie Willendrup of Scotia and Kimberly Stoliker of Waterford.
Five years later, in October 2000, The Gazette reconnected with the women. Cynthia had lost her battle with breast cancer at age 44 in 1998, but five survivors — Doreen, Debi, Claudette, Kim and Elsie — talked to us once again.
In October 2005, The Gazette checked in for a third time, and this time there were four survivors. In 2002, Kimberly died at age 47 of leukemia, a second cancer caused by a 1993 bone marrow transplant for inflammatory breast cancer.
This month, as breast cancer survivors across American walked and talked about the disease, The Gazette tracked down the women for a fourth time.
Elsie, a survivor for 33 years and the oldest woman in the group at age 87, has moved to Florida and is living in a nursing home. She was diagnosed in 1977 at age 55. In 1986, nine years after undergoing a radical Halsted mastectomy in which the breast and underlying muscle were removed, Elsie was among the first group of women in the Capital Region to undergo breast reconstruction. She was not available for an interview.
But Doreen, Debi and Claudette were happy to talk to The Gazette and to look back on their cancer journeys.
‘It has to change you; it made me a better person’ — Debi Tebano
Debi Tebano was 38 years old in 1995, when she smiled for her Gazette portrait wearing a diamond bracelet that her husband, Pat, gave her after her mastectomy.
When The Gazette called her on Oct. 12, the Niskayuna couple had just returned from a trip to Niagara Falls to celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary. Debi is now 54 years old, and with their three sons in college or working, the couple is spending more time together.
“I’m loving every minute of it. . . . That’s my priority now,” she says.
Seventeen years ago, Debi was busy caring for 7-year-old Anthony and 5-year-old twins Nicolas and Stefan, when she heard the startling news. Her surgeon didn’t discuss reconstruction, and her disease was aggressive, with six of 17 lymph nodes positive for cancer. So, at age 36, she had her breast removed and then underwent a rough 14 months of chemotherapy that left her bald and extremely fatigued.
In the first few years, she had lymphedema, a painful arm swelling caused by surgery.
“Once in a blue moon, I get a slight case of lymphedema around my wrist,” she reports.
But the cancer has stayed away.
“I’m doing great,” Debi says confidently.
Her main health issue is rheumatoid arthritis, and for now she is avoiding medication. “I just deal with it,” she says, “and I keep my hands warm.”
Debi and Pat don’t talk about cancer anymore, and she doesn’t do anything special on April 13, the anniversary of her diagnosis.
“I used to wake up on April 13 and say, ‘Can you believe it happened so many years ago?. Now, believe it or not, . . . I’ll forget.”
Debi suggests that newly diagnosed women find another survivor to be their mentor. She’ll never forget that day when she was young and scared and a Reach to Recovery volunteer who was a 13-year-survivor came to her house.
“Looking at her, you would never know she was a cancer survivor. That’s what did it for me.”
Debi also believes that cancer changed her life.
“It has to change you. There’s a dividing line of everything that happened before and everything that happened after,” she says. “It made me a better person. . . . I paid more attention to little things, to the seasons, to my kids and their activities.”
Family is extremely important to Debi, and she stays close to her five brothers and sisters and 10 nieces and nephews.
“I love every holiday, every birthday. I don’t take it for granted.”
And her birthday on Oct. 16?
“I laugh when women won’t admit to their age. When I turned 40, I had a party. When I turned 50, I had a party.”
‘You can’t cry forever; it doesn’t help’ — Claudette Martin-Howard
“I’ve got four great-grandchildren,” Claudette Martin-Howard of Schenectady announces happily as she meets a Gazette reporter in the waiting room of the Rexford office of New York Oncology and Hematology.
Claudette, 71 years old and a 16-year survivor of breast cancer, only sees an oncologist once a year now, and she isn’t worried about her health.
“I’m so good, I can’t stand myself,” she jokes, then turns around in her chair to show off the back of the black leather Dallas Cowboys jacket that she got for her birthday.
Two days before her doctor’s appointment, Claudette was laughing and relaxing with 60 other female cancer survivors at Bravehearts, a cabin campout that happens every fall at Double H Hole in the Woods Ranch in Lake Luzerne.
“I don’t do the zip line,” she says with a laugh, “but I’ve made a lot of friends.”
Claudette was 54 when she lost her right breast to a mastectomy on June 28, 1994; one year later on that same date, her left breast was removed after she was diagnosed with a separate breast cancer.
She did chemotherapy, and for a while she suffered from severe lymphedema, a chronic arm inflammation caused by the surgeries.
Today, she takes only thyroid and blood-pressure medicines and walks with a limp because of an arthritic hip, but that doesn’t stop her from educating women about breast cancer whenever she can.
Claudette’s closet is full of pink ribbons, caps and T-shirts, including one that reads: “Fight Like a Girl, Win Like a Woman.” “And that’s my motto,” she says.
Claudette used to walk every year in the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides” benefit in Albany’s Washington Park, but now she’s a Reach to Recovery volunteer, offering support by phone to newly diagnosed women.
In April, she was one of seven Capital Region residents honored with a Jefferson Award for her volunteer work with a summer lunch program for children operated by the Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
When asked for her advice to women who are just starting out on the cancer journey, Claudette has a quick reply: “Get in touch with the American Cancer Society, and get in touch with a Reach to Recovery volunteer.”
What about when you get the blues?
“Pick up the funniest movie you can find and have a good laugh. Laughing is healing; it releases whatever is inside,” she says.
Living as a woman without breasts still gets her upset sometimes, but most of the time she doesn’t think about cancer.
“I take it one day at a time. You can’t cry forever. It doesn’t help,” she says.
‘It’s about always moving forward, never looking back’ — Doreen Gabriele
Doreen Gabriele, age 54 and a 20-year survivor of breast cancer, loves nothing better than smacking a golf ball down the fairway, but when a friend wanted to give her some fuzzy pink covers for her clubs, she stood her ground.
“You will not find pink all through my house. I have breast cancer ribbons. I have breast cancer bracelets. But do I have a pink blender on my counter? No!”
The Guilderland resident is passionate about breast cancer awareness and education — she was a former support group leader. But there is so much more to her life than cancer.
“I’ve never considered myself sick, ill or disabled. It’s about always moving forward, never looking back. Everyone’s dealt something, and this is what you’re dealt with. Deal with it and move on. You just have to be constantly moving forward.”
Doreen was diagnosed on her 34th birthday, when her two children were 7 and 9 years old. With no family history of the disease, the news was especially shocking. The tumor in her left breast was 5 centimeters, and 17 of the 18 lymph nodes removed from her armpit tested positive for cancer.
She had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and, two years later, breast reconstruction. Over two decades, as new breast cancer drugs emerged, she has taken a series of drugs to successfully combat small metastases to her bones, plus all kinds of estrogen-blocking drugs.
“Mine is unusual because it has stayed in my bone and it is extremely, extremely slow-growing,” she explains.
In September 2009, Doreen’s leg broke after a tiny spot of cancer weakened a bone in her thigh. A first surgery to insert a rod in her leg didn’t heal properly, so she had a second surgery about a month ago.
“We’re very optimistic. I’m going to physical therapy and I feel real good.”
After golfing, boating and swimming all summer, it’s been tough for her to take it easy and walk with a cane, but the doctor says it’s just a temporary setback.
“I’ll be shooting nine in no time,” she says.
Earlier this year, Doreen took early retirement from her job as a behavior-intervention specialist with Schenectady City School District, but she still works four days a month with the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.
“I’m enjoying the down time, “ she says, explaining how fewer work hours have given her more time to help Danielle, her 29-year-old daughter, prepare for a spring wedding.
Doreen advises women to “go in there like you are fighting. . . .You need to know how to ask your doctor questions. You need to advocate for yourself.”
But, she doesn’t recommend spending hours on the Internet doing research or brooding over your cancer.
“I had it for 20 years, and I’m an analyzer. But I think that if you sit there and analyze this whole cancer thing, it can make you crazy.”
Gazette writer Karen Bjornland, who has been interviewing these women since 1995, is a survivor of two separate breast cancers, diagnosed in 1991 and then in 2009, when she had a mastectomy. She is also an 11-year survivor of colon cancer and an eight-year survivor of ovarian cancer.