Florence Thompson of Freeport and Donna Bennett of Hempstead attend...

Florence Thompson of Freeport and Donna Bennett of Hempstead attend the 2010 Memorial Sloan-Kettering Long Island Survivors Celebration in Woodbury. (June 16, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Hundreds of Long Island cancer patients and survivors gathered Wednesday to meet and swap stories about their battles with the disease.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's regional network sponsored the event, held Wednesday evening in Woodbury. The network has three sites on Long Island.

"It's a nice event to seek people on your own terms, back in the state of health," said Maureen Killackey, the network's medical director.

Among the about 950 people expected at Wednesday's event were several Long Islanders who have fought - and won - their battles with cancer.



36, Flower Hill

Amy Blumenfeld was 15 when doctors used chemotherapy and radiation to destroy her entire immune system as part of her treatment for Hodgkin's disease.

She spent two months in a reverse isolation room to avoid infections - "I was bored out of my mind," she says, laughing - as her immune system rebuilt itself from bone marrow doctors had extracted from her beforehand.

Blumenfeld is now 36, and has remained cancer-free since her teens. She said she undergoes regular mammograms and MRIs, as the radiation from her teens put her at a higher risk for breast cancer. "I've had a lot of long-term follow-ups," she said. "I feel like I live there. . . . It's a price I'm really willing to pay."

And because doctors had moved her ovaries to shield them from radiation, Blumenfeld was later able to conceive a child. Her daughter, Mia, was born in 2006 with the assistance of a gestational surrogate.



51, Rockville Centre

Luigi Chiechi's been a U.S. Marine since 1981 and now, as a sergeant major, supervises a squadron of Marines who provide aerial refueling and support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called cancer his toughest battle.

"I've been in a lot of tough jams in my life - one, as a Marine, and two, as an average human being - and this definitely took every ounce of dedication," Chiechi said.

While shaving in the shower last July, Chiechi felt lumps below the right side of his jaw and at the bottom of his neck. He went to his doctor, who gave him antibiotics and told him the lumps would go away in two weeks.

"Two weeks went by, and the lumps didn't go away," Chiechi said. "I knew right then that I had cancer."

He had two tumors removed last August. By the end of the year, he had undergone six sessions of chemotherapy and 31 sessions of radiation.

The cancer's now gone. At Wednesday's event, Chiechi said he was glad to be there, because it beat the alternative.

"I was handed basically a death sentence," he said. "It was definitely the fight of my life."



55, Amityville

Kevin Mills hasn't resumed playing sports with his four children or three grandchildren, and he isn't allowed to start scuba diving again. "It's going to take a while longer," he said. "I am slowly, but surely getting back to what you'd call a normal life."

But he's cancer-free, after three bouts with leukemia.

Mills was first diagnosed near the end of 2004. After five months of chemotherapy, Mills went into remission, but the cancer returned twice, in 2007 and 2008.

His doctors decided to try a stem cell transplant after the cancer returned a second time. A donor was identified, and Mills received the transplant last June.

After one month in the hospital, Mills says he went into "a type of quarantine," leaving home only to see the doctor. Those restrictions were eased gradually.

Now, he's returned to work, as a vice president for the health-care products distributor Henry Schein, and is taking steps toward his old life.

"I was happy in October to get out of the house and just walk around the park, which is next door," he said. "When I was first released from the hospital, I was going back and forth in a wheelchair. Now, I walk into the hospital like I own the place."



49, Hempstead

Donna Bennett calls her bout with breast cancer "a rough ride." "Every side effect they say you could have, I experienced it all," said Bennett, who works in the accounting department at New York Community Bank's corporate office.

Bennett first felt a lump in her breast in September 2007. By the following month, she was undergoing chemotherapy, working throughout her treatments with only occasional days off.

She had surgery and underwent radiation treatment the following year. By the end of 2008, Bennett said the cancer was gone.

Bennett credits her family, friends and nurses for helping her through her treatment, and she said she now returns the favor, offering support to friends and relatives with cancer. "I try to help out as much as I can with this," she said.

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