TODAY'S PAPER
50° Good Afternoon
50° Good Afternoon
Long Island

LI women beat odds, celebrate mom's day

Julie Atteritano, 34, is seen with her children

Julie Atteritano, 34, is seen with her children Christian Vonduring and Makayla Vonduring, both 6, at their home in Rockville Center, N.Y. Atteritano had ovarian cancer shortly after she returned home from her honeymoon in New Zealand back in 2002, when she was 26, and now has been been cancer-free for the last 8 years. (May 5, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Jennifer S. Altman

For these Long Island women, Mother's Day is far more than cards and flowers. It's a remarkable milestone.

Each faced medical problems so daunting that raising a family seemed an impossible dream. Today, they're celebrating overcoming fears and beating the odds. They're miracle moms.

JULIE ATTERITANO, 34, Rockville Centre

Returning home from a trip to New Zealand as a newlywed, Julie Atteritano headed straight to her doctor. She wanted to know why she was wracked with abdominal pain.

"I was a healthy 26-year-old, and I had just gotten back from my honeymoon," she said.

The imaging tests in fall 2002 revealed something she didn't expect: a large mass on the left side of her abdomen. A blood test designed to spot levels of a marker for ovarian cancer was off the charts.

In a matter of weeks, Atteritano went from happy newlywed to fearful patient, facing a cancer that typically strikes much older women. The average age of diagnosis is 63.

She and her husband, Christopher Vonduring, wanted to have children, but the shocking diagnosis seemed to shatter those plans.

"Total, utter shock" was how Atteritano described her reaction to the news. "I couldn't stop shaking."

Standard treatment is a total hysterectomy followed by chemotherapy. The cancer is often considered one of the most lethal because it's usually diagnosed late. Although her tumor was diagnosed early, doctors wouldn't know whether it had spread until surgery.

Because the cancer invaded the left ovary, there was a possibility her right ovary and uterus remained cancer-free. If so, pregnancy would still be possible -- but there were no guarantees.

No statistics exist on women who bear children after ovarian cancer, according to April Donohue, past president of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.

Atteritano's surgery revealed the tumor hadn't spread. Working with her doctors, the couple had eggs from the healthy ovary extracted, inseminated and frozen. After that, Atteritano began six months of chemotherapy.

In October 2004, she started preparations for the embryo transfer, which involves stimulating the uterine lining with hormones. Three embryos were implanted.

Then came the miracle she was wishing for: She became pregnant -- with twins.

In May 2005, she gave birth by Caesarean section to Makayla and Christian. Immediately afterward, she underwent a hysterectomy -- insurance against a cancer recurrence.

"Oh God, what a blessing," Atteritano, a dietitian at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, said last week. She was referring to her children, who turn 6 in two weeks.

"I had this one shot to get pregnant," she said, "and now we have these amazing children."

APHRODITE KOINOGLOU, 47, Williston Park

Aphrodite Koinoglou knew something had gone horribly awry on Sept. 11, 1997, the day she brought her newborn adopted daughter home from the hospital.

Cuddling Angela in the car, Koinoglou's vision suddenly dimmed, filling her with fear. She couldn't see her baby's face.

"It was a bittersweet day," the single mom recalled. "I got my dream. I wanted to be a mother for such a long time, but I lost my vision. I went from picking her up at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow to seeing a neurologist."

The sudden blindness turned a planned celebration with relatives into an anxious vigil.

Koinoglou, a nurse practitioner who treats kidney disease patients at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, immediately suspected multiple sclerosis because of the abrupt vision loss.

Her physician initially insisted it was stress, but tests proved Koinoglou right.

MS, an autoimmune disorder, causes general weakness and problems with speech and coordination. The disorder is progressive but waxes and wanes.

Koinoglou's doctor started her on doses of a steroid, which immediately restored her vision. A few months later, the second part of her dream came true: the adoption of her son, Robert. Both children are now 13.

Over the years, Koinoglou's disease would worsen, testing her will. When her children were 5, she couldn't walk and had to be hospitalized. Today, she still relies on a cane.

For the past five years, she's been on a potent medication that tamps down the immune system, leaving some patients more vulnerable to a rare viral infection that can lead to a degenerative brain condition.

Koinoglou said she takes the drug because it makes her feel her best and allows her to be an active mom. She's routinely checked for any problems related to the drug.

"I'm all about my children," she said last week. "They are my life. I am their rock. . . . My children are my motivating force to be well."

SHARON GREIF, 50, Roslyn

Shortly before giving birth to her third son 11 years ago, Sharon Greif entered uncharted medical territory.

It started with some strange symptoms.

"I was tripping . . . and my hands were shaking," she recalled. "And once I had the baby the symptoms got worse."

Greif suspected stress. Her physician thought it was multiple sclerosis. Further testing produced a diagnosis neither expected: young-onset Parkinson's disease.

The condition, which affects people 40 and younger, accounts for only 5 percent to 10 percent of all Parkinson's cases in the United States.

Greif said her doctors couldn't explain why she developed Parkinson's at such a young age. They had even less information about Parkinson's and pregnancy.

"They thought the stress of pregnancy brought out the symptoms," she said, "so they do know that pregnancy can exacerbate it."

Greif, who gave birth to a healthy boy, doesn't want him to think he caused her condition. The truth is, no one knows what triggers Parkinson's.

The progressive neurological condition is marked by the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells, which leads to tremors, slow movement and a stiffened gait. The disease usually strikes after age 50; most people are 65 or older when diagnosed.

Greif was 38.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research has found that young people facing the disease have additional pressing concerns to deal with, from job loss to providing for children. Fox, the actor, was diagnosed with the disease in 1991.

For years, Greif kept her illness secret from her neighbors. She didn't want to be known as the mom who was sick.

Today, she takes a number of medications and wears a dopamine-stimulating patch her husband, Roy, routinely imports from Europe. The patch isn't approved in the United States.

Greif said her "greatest gifts" -- sons Evan, 11; Andrew, 18; and Ben, 21 -- are all the motivation she needs to keep fighting.

"I want to be strong for my kids," she said.

DIANE TROPEA GREENE, 51, Plainview

Diane Tropea Greene's mother died of breast cancer, leaving her motherless at 23.

"It's the worst feeling when your mother dies" -- a loss carried throughout life, Greene said.

Her mom's siblings -- a sister and a brother -- also died of breast cancer, a disease that robbed her of an entire extended family before she reached 30.Greene braced herself when she, too, was diagnosed at the age of 38. She carries the BRCA-2cq gene, which predisposes families to the disease.

Her sons, Matthew and Brian, were 7 and 9 at the time of her diagnosis in 1998. She vowed to herself that she wouldn't leave them -- that she would battle cancer as hard as possible.

When she and her husband, Jay, broke the news to their children, they made it sound hopeful.

Greene pointed out their grandfather had beaten colon cancer and that Linda Ellerbee, then a children's show host, had survived breast cancer.

"I told them all of this just so they had something positive to look to," she said.

The author and clerical worker for Farmingdale public schools underwent a mastectomy -- surgery that can be disabling but also prevents a mom from hugging her sons.

"They would ask, 'When can we hug you tight again?'" Greene said.

Her ordeal with breast cancer didn't end with the mastectomy. There was also chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery.

Aware of her family history, Greene, a journal writer since childhood, began chronicling her life and thoughts, and also telling the story of her mother's generation -- just in case things didn't go well.

"This was going to be something for my children; my memorial to my children," she said.

Now a 13-year survivor, Greeene didn't have to leave the journal in memorium to herself. Instead, it became the book "Apron Strings," a 2007 bestseller.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News