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'Cancer does not discriminate.' Breast cancer survivors tell their stories

Jennifer Favaro-Farrell, 34, with her husband Ryan and

A mother of three from New Hyde Park who runs half marathons. A Levittown woman who was diagnosed with the disease five times. A Huntington Station woman who was given two years to live.

Each has battled breast cancer — the second-most common cancer among women in the United States — and survived. One in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What to know

  • Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer in American women, topped only by skin cancers.

  • There is a 1-in-8 chance a woman in the U.S. will develop breast cancer.

  • An estimated 284,200 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S in 2021, including 17,540 in New York State.

  • The death rate from breast cancer dropped by 41% between 1989 and 2018 due to increased awareness, screenings and new treatments.

SOURCE: American Cancer Society

But those diagnosed with the disease have plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Screenings with new technology, such as 3D mammograms, are picking up signs of cancer earlier. New treatments focus on the unique biology of cancer cells and the patient, rather than just the size or stage of the cancer. As a result, breast cancer rates dropped more than 40% between 1980 and 2018, according to the American Cancer Society.

Health experts said education is the key. For the past 36 years, the month of October has been designated to bring awareness to breast cancer, especially the importance of early screenings.

Newsday spoke with four Long Island women about their experiences battling breast cancer.

Maria Hamdani, 47, of New Hyde Park

'I was so grateful to be alive'

Hamdani figured at some point in her life she would end up battling breast cancer.

The 47-year-old woman from New Hyde Park had lost a beloved aunt to breast cancer more than 30 years ago. Hamdani’s mom was diagnosed with it several years later and survived.

But it was still a shock when the mother of three, who runs half marathons, found out last December that the masses on her left breast had tested positive for cancer.

"It was right before Christmas and I got the call. My middle daughter was with me and I held her hand," said Hamdani, a former teacher who now works as director of classroom assessments at Curriculum Associates, an education publishing company in Brooklyn. "I was just crying on the phone with the doctor. I figured I would be 60, 65, not 47. I had seem my aunt go through it, and I had seen my mom go through it. It was terrifying."

A close-knit network of family and friends rushed to support her. Hamdani's parents wanted to travel from Texas to be with her before her surgery in February, but they had only just become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and received their first dose. She talked them out of traveling to New York during a painful phone conversation.

"I said, ‘If something happened to you, I could never live with myself,’ " Hamdani recalled through tears. "A week later, my dad got COVID."

She remembers thinking at the time: "God's not going to give me cancer and take my dad — but he did."

Her father died three weeks later.

It was a crushing blow to Hamdani, just a week before her double mastectomy surgery at NYU-Langone in Manhattan. She made the decision with her doctors to remove both her breasts after a possible lump was detected on her right breast. Surgery showed there were two precancerous masses on that breast.

"The doctor said it was the best decision I had ever made," Hamdani said. "I was so grateful to be alive."

Recovery was challenging, but she was never alone as friends and family took turns staying with her, taking care of everything from providing food to running errands and even sending inspiring messages.

"All of that really lifted me up," she said. "But at night, when you're alone with your thoughts, I'm, thinking 'Oh my God, what's just happened.' "

Hamdani’s double mastectomy surgery successfully removed the cancer from her body, and since her lymph nodes had no cancer cells, she did not need chemotherapy. But she remains on hormone therapy to block the estrogen that was feeding her cancer. She sees her oncologist every six months.

Before she had surgery, Hamdani spread awareness to people in her Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia Muslim sect in India. The Bohras have members across the world and in the U.S., including on Long Island.

"As in many Indian communities, [breast cancer] is just not spoken of very much," she said.

Hamdani participated in a Zoom seminar urging women to get mammograms. As a result, many participants were inspired to get mammograms, and one woman was diagnosed with cancer, she said.

"I’m a teacher," she said. "If I don’t teach and pass this along, then why did this even happen to me? I feel so motivated to continue to help women understand the importance of early detection, and that a mammogram saved my life."

Eileen Perry, 67, of Levittown

'Early detection is what kept me going'

Perry’s breast cancer journey is so long and complex that the Levittown woman jokes she is in the medical journals. She wasn't kidding.

Perry, 67, has been diagnosed with breast cancer five times since 2006. Despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the cancer always has returned. The days are tough, but she keeps a positive attitude. She has no detectable cancer at the moment.

"I push myself," said Perry, a married mom of two grown sons. "I have the philosophy that if you sit down and just cry and mope, you are not going to live long."

Her first diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), picked up during a regular mammogram screening. The American Cancer Society describes DCIS as cancer in cells that line the milk ducts and is considered non-invasive or pre-invasive breast cancer.

Perry had a lump removed, underwent radiation therapy and started taking hormone blockers. She went on with her life as a special education teacher for young children, working for various agencies on Long Island through the state Department of Health.

Several years later, another mammogram found a small cluster, which turned out to be lobular triple negative cancer, a form especially difficult to treat. She described it as a rare form of cancer that is "more like a snake, than a lump, and can be difficult to detect."

"Triple negative cannot be treated with hormone therapy, and chemo and radiation are the only current treatments available," she said.

Perry had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery with implants at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone-Long Island.

The cancer returned again in a few years, this time around the implants. Another surgery was needed to remove them and the cancerous cells.

"Every single time I felt fine," Perry recalled. "There were no symptoms, no aches, no pains, no swelling. You would think, you know, I feel something, but no, I felt fine."

In 2019, she noticed "something" on the side of her breast. It was not a lump, but Perry was concerned enough to go to a doctor, have it removed and biopsied. Another cancer diagnosis and a more aggressive round of chemotherapy followed in 2020.

This past summer, a patch of skin was removed and determined to be cancerous. While she has no detectable cancer currently, doctors are coming up with a long-term plan to prevent it from returning, she said, because oncologists said there are cancer cells "floating around."

Perry credits the support of her husband Larry, as well as friends and family, for helping her stay positive. She advises women to take all screening tests their doctors recommend and be aggressive with following through.

"Early detection is what kept me going," she said. "If you are going through this, have your doctor recheck pathology because they are coming up with new information, new testing and they find different things."

Perry said to never feel afraid to seek a second opinion, which her doctors encouraged her to do. "If your doctor says, ‘No, don’t go for a second opinion,’ I’d walk out the door," she said.

Anna McNeil, 76, of Huntington Station

'I had no fear, because God had my back'

McNeil was used to finding lumps in her right breast. And for years, they were all benign. Then, one day in 1994 while sewing, McNeil raised her arm and felt a lump in her left breast.

Her doctors at Huntington Hospital found cancer in her lymph nodes. They were removed, and she underwent radiation therapy. McNeil was cancer free — for 20 years.

She shared her story and spread awareness as a member of Sisters of Long Island, a support group for African American women with breast cancer.

Fast forward to one day in 2014, when McNeil stepped out of the shower and looked into the mirror with horror. The skin around her left breast looked black.

"This was three months after I had my mammogram," McNeil, 76, said during a recent interview at her Huntington Station home. "All I could do was say, ‘Oh my God! … It looked like someone had poured cement on it and it cracked."

She went to the doctor the next day, and a biopsy later confirmed cancer. The image from her MRI looked like "a tornado … coming out from inside me," McNeil said.

The cancer had spread across her chest into her lymph nodes. Doctors told her she may not live another two years. "I was scared to death," she admitted.

But every time she returned to the hospital for treatment, McNeil would announce: "I’m still here!"

She received an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation that wiped her out, physically and emotionally, she said, before having a double mastectomy in 2015. McNeil said the chemotherapy took her sight for a week. The skin peeled off her body.

"I would come in there [the hospital] every day laughing. I would never go in crying," she said. "I had no fear, because God had my back. God was taking care of me. He didn’t bring me to that point to leave. He brought me through it."

The recovery was not easy, but McNeil said she has rebounded. The chemotherapy has left her with neuropathy in her feet, although that hasn’t stopped her. She is back to sewing and driving her neighbors to medical appointments and to the supermarket.

"I’m like an Uber!" she laughed.

McNeil reminds women to check themselves for changes in their breasts and get regular mammograms. "I tell people, ‘If you see something, feel something, see somebody!’ "

Jennifer Favaro-Farrell, 34, of Bay Shore

'I didn't need a biopsy to tell me this was cancer'

Favaro-Farrell was a new mom in July 2019 and still nursing her young daughter when she felt the small, pea-sized lump on the side of her breast.

Her husband Ryan had prompted her to do a self-exam. "I didn't have a family history. I'm healthy, so I never thought to do it," Favaro-Farrell, 34, of Bay Shore, recalled thinking at the time.

Three weeks later, the tiny bump had turned into a lump the size of a golf ball. Ever optimistic, Favaro-Farrell thought it might be an abscess as she was trying to wean her daughter from breastfeeding.

A troubling ultrasound led doctors to order a mammogram.

"I didn't need a biopsy to tell me this was cancer," said Favaro-Farrell, an ER nurse who now works in outpatient cardiology in Deer Park. "When they showed me the images, I said, 'That's cancer. What are we going to do about it?' "

Once her cancer diagnosis was official, she met with Dr. Melissa Fana, chief of breast surgery at South Shore University Hospital and a team from Northwell Health's Imbert Cancer Center. They gave her encouragement and a plan.

The cancer was stage 3 and growing fast. It had spread into her lymph nodes. She needed hormone therapy to stop it and chemotherapy to shrink it. She was given Adriamycin, also known as the "red devil."

"You lose your toenails. You lose all your hair. Your skin starts to flake off," she said.

By the time she had her double mastectomy in January 2020, surgeons found no cancer in her lymph nodes and a small tumor in her breast. That was followed by another round of chemotherapy and radiation.

While she was recovering, Favaro-Farrell watched friends and colleagues in the health care field battle the deadly COVID-19 epidemic and was devastated she couldn't do her part to help.

"I'm an emergency room nurse and trauma certified," she said. "I almost felt like a wounded soldier trained for battle and I'm sitting in my house."

But she knew her focus had to stay on getting better, especially for her young son, Ryan Jr., and daughter, Catalina.

"I kind of made a decision that I wasn't going to allow this to define me," she said of her cancer battle. "I worked full time. I got my kids up every day."

Favaro-Farrell remains on hormone therapy and has been cancer-free for a year. She encouraged people of all ages to get screened.

"Cancer does not discriminate," she said.

Portraits by Debbie Egan-Chin and Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca


A conversation with Dr. Melissa Fana

Newsday spoke with East Northport resident Dr. Melissa Fana, a breast surgical oncologist and chief of breast surgery at South Shore University Hospital about what people should know.

Q: What is your advice to people who have received a diagnosis of breast cancer?

Fana: The anxiety and stress that comes along with a new breast cancer diagnosis is obviously real and understandable, but knowledge is power. We have a team approach, and the patient will understand why certain treatments are recommended and what their risks are for the future. About 90% of breast cancers, when caught early, have an excellent prognosis. The chance of the cancer coming back is extremely low in most cases.

Q: What has changed with the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in recent years?

Fana: We now understand breast cancer is several diseases. We used to think size was what mattered most, and now we know it’s biology. For patients with aggressive breast cancers, going through treatment like chemotherapy or targeted therapy lessens the chance of the cancer coming back and could make surgery easier.

We have much better technology to diagnose breast cancers better, quicker and earlier. We have a 3D mammogram we didn’t have before called tomosynthesis. We have a special mammogram that adds benefit to detecting breast cancer in dense breast tissue or young breast tissue. We are definitely at a different point now than we were 10, 20 years ago.

Q: Why is it so important for women to get regular mammograms?

Fana: Most of the time, especially with early breast cancer, we don't expect a person to feel anything. And that's why mammograms save lives. We recommend women start mammograms at the age of 40, because we know that this is the easiest way to detect early breast cancer. Even in the midst of a pandemic, that hasn't completely been resolved. It is really important to understand the importance of getting mammograms.

Q: What are some of the myths surrounding breast cancer you want to correct?

Fana: Some people think that if they don't have insurance or if they don't have a certain insurance that they can't get treatment or they can't get mammograms, and that's not true. There are a lot of programs that offer even free mammograms. Another myth I encounter is ‘I can't get breast cancer because I don’t have a family history,’ and that's not true. Family history is a very small part. Another myth I've heard is if ‘I have breast cancer, I'm going to die.’ That's absolutely not true. Even if we consider stage 4 breast cancer … we have excellent treatments to-date for that. The person is not expected to die. We can keep the cancer quiet or control it for many years.

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