A TALE OF THREE BREAST CANCER SURVIVORS
By Al Mattei
Inside the massive indoor athletic facilty at Franklin & Marshall University in Lancaster Pa., three different women representing three distinct sides of the field hockey community spent the 2000 National Indoor Tournament in separate and distinct roles.
Karen Collins of the United States Field Hockey Association is ensuring that the entire tournament is running smoothly. Terry Martin, head field hockey coach of Queensbury (N.Y.) as well as the club team The Thoroughbreds, is preparing for the latest of her seven games she is coaching on the Saturday of the 2000 tourney. And Kathie Belli, a schoolteacher from Vernon, N.J., is keenly watching the moves of her daughter Lindsay, a midfielder/defender on the Throughbreds team.
These three women -- an administrator, a coach, and a parent -- have so much more in common than their appearance at the Indoor Nationals. Each has undergone an ordeal only a woman can fully understand: the discovery and aggressive treatment of breast cancer.
The three were were in their customary roles at the 2000, but it was a completely different story a year previous, at the 1999 National Indoor Tournament tournament. Martin was in the midst of some 33 days of radiation treatments and 12 weeks of chemotherapy. Belli was in the midst of her chemotherapy, and was looking at a span in which she would have to undergo 35 radiation treatments. Collins, having just learned that a cyst found in her breast was not draining exactly like all of the others, was just days away from making the decisions that would impact the rest of her life.
In about a 25-year span, breast cancer awareness has gone from one of the most lethal cancers to one of the most survivable. Research into the disease and its treatments have accelerated tremendously over the years.
All three of these women have followed the necessary formula for success in beating the disease. First of all, each have assessed their risks for breast cancer, based upon family history, among other things.
"This runs in the family, being a second-generation breast cancer patient," Martin says, "My mother had a radical (mastectomy) in 1980."
"There is a history on my father's side of the family," Collins says. "I lost my paternal grandparents and three aunts on my father's side."
As such, they each had aggressive screening before the cancer was even discovered.
"I've always been very careful, not drinking caffeine, not doing all the things that the doctors say cause cysts and things that could cause problems," Collins says. "I felt I had done the things necessary to live a healthy life."
"I have had some cyst removals before," Martin says. "but this one, in October of 1998 after a routine mammogram, the pathology game out malignant."
Still, despite the family history and the screenings, that did not fully prepare them or their families for the news.
"The day we went to the state tournament (in 1998), I went to the oncologist and found out my cyst was malignant," Martin says. "With Abby (her daughter, who plays at North Carolina), it was tough because it was just before exams. She was just a tad bit stressed out."
"It was tough on her," Belli says of her daughter Lindsay. "I didn't want my life to put a hold on her life, and I didn't want her to stop what she was doing because of me."
Once the malignancies were found, each leaned towards the aggressive treatments for the cancer. Today, this means a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and oral medication.
Not all of the women chose every therapy. Collins, for example, did not undergo as much radiation as the rest.
"The treatment was very aggressive, and I feel pretty comforable that I'm at a point where I have a good life ahead of me," Collins says. "One of the things that helped me through it was that I was generally healthy and was in pretty good physical condition."
The three women, together under the same roof for the first time since they all underwent breast cancer treatment, all share many of the same experiences, including the same post-surgical regimen: bi-yearly mammograms, taking Tamoxifen for a period of five years, and getting every female in the immediate family to understand the importance of early detection.
There has even been a chance for each to do something above and beyond helping themselves. For instance, Lindsay Belli joined Martin's Thoroughbreds team shortly after the 1999 Junior Olympics.
"(Martin) knew what I was going through," Kathie Belli says. "She was a couple of months ahead of me in treatments. It was one of the main reasons she moved to her team."
"It's amazing how small the world is," Martin says. "We went to the JOs, and I had met Kathie at the National Indoor, and we met three other people of mothers that had gone through it at different stages, and it was like, 'How do you deal with this?' We all compare notes, and it's amazing how many are involved."
Meanwhile, Collins is working on plans to ally the USFHA with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Lindsay Belli has already helped raise funds for that organization.
"We'd like to somehow incorporate them into the National Festival," she says. "We've got a big population of young girls, and this is a great time to learn about early detection. If we can get this going, it would make me very happy."
"If one person benefits from our experience, that they go get their mammogram, do their self-examination, and go to their doctor, and find it early, it makes all the difference," Martin says.
The three of them have been dealing with the aftermath of their experiences in different ways. Martin has remained active in high school, club, and Futures coaching. Belli and Collins have not missed a great deal of work, and hope to make a statement to their respective communities.
"It's come a long way since the days of cancer being a death sentence," Kathie Belli says. "I not only want to be a role model to women, but to let kids know if their parents get cancer, they're not going to die. It helps everyone if you get it out in the open and talk about it."
Each have had some cathartic moments since completing their cancer treatments -- moments which told them that they would overcome the breast cancer within.
Terry Martin's catharsis came at the 1999 National Futures Tournament, when she not only broke back into coaching, but did so in a big way. Her smile was twice as large, her humor in overdrive. She acted like she had a second chance at life, laughing and talking with anyone who would listen, and squirting some passers-by with a water pistol -- which was well appreciated, given the temperatures approaching 120 degrees on the University of Maryland recreational turf.
Karen Collins' catharses come through her recreational activities. She has gotten back to her golf and cycling outings -- the latter more gradually. A couple of weeks before the 2000 National Indoor Tournament, she was able to get on a pair of skis for the first time. Snaking down the powder of the Rocky Mountains, she felt a freedom she had not felt in a long time.
Kathie Belli's catharsis came during a walkathon at Vernon High School, where the school's outdoor track was surrounded by candles in paper bags -- one for each breast cancer survivor memorialized at the walk.
Belli's candle was the last one aflame after all of the others expired.
For more information on breast cancer screening and prevention, there are a number of websites available.
There are websites on the experience of breast cancer survival, including one run by the Oncology Nursing Society as well as by the Amgen pharmaceutical company.
The depth of information for patients is remarkable, including a site for those whose breast cancer may have spread to the bones as well as one for those whose tumors test positive for HER2 protein overexpression.
For those looking to effect a more proactive social solution, the National Breast Cancer Coalition has started Project LEAD, which uses activism and advocacy to find a cure.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation's website is at the easy-to-remember URL BreastCancerInfo.Com.