Good Life

Pink Zone | From the front lines: stories from breast cancer survivors

Breast Cancer survivor Marian Hamby shows off her plants in her apartment.
Breast Cancer survivor Marian Hamby shows off her plants in her apartment. CDT photo

On Sunday, a sea of pink shirts will fill the stands at the Bryce Jordan Center for this year’s Pennsylvania Pink Zone basketball game. The Lady Lions will face-off against the Wisconsin Badgers in an annual effort that has generated $825,000 in fundraising for cancer research and treatment over seven years.

Among the crowd will be breast cancer survivors of all ages and walks of life, coming together to celebrate the triumphant outcome of a battle that each of them has waged and won on their own terms.

Some were forced confront the disease with quiet dignity. Others found strength and support among family and friends. Many reached back into the community to help others struggling with a frightening and unexpected diagnosis.

These are their stories.

Marian

Almost five decades ago, 91-year-old Marian Hamby was sitting in a hospital in Ohio awaiting her mastectomy.

She was taking a shower when she found it — a lump on her left breast that the doctor said needed to be removed immediately. There was no discussion of chemo, no other choices offered or debated. Hamby would have a mastectomy and that was that.

“In that day, they didn’t give you any options,” Hamby said.

Days earlier, Hamby had been on a family trip to sunny Florida, and now she was sitting in a waiting room shooting dubious looks at a buxom nurse, who tried to reassure her that the operation wouldn’t change anything.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re a great one to be telling me that,’ ” Hamby said.

A few months later, Hamby ran into the nurse again outside of the hospital, where she learned that her caregiver was a breast cancer survivor who had undergone a mastectomy of her own. Protocol had prevented her from sharing that part of her past with Hamby before the operation.

While the missed connection frustrated Hamby, she acknowledges that the sensibilities of the 1970s may have precluded a more frank discussion about their shared disease.

“It was almost like you were contagious,” Hamby said.

There were no checkups after her surgery. Her doctor was confident that the mastectomy had been successful and told Hamby that she could come in again in few weeks to have her stitches removed.

Life resumed and the survivor adjusted to her new circumstances. Hamby and her friend, another breast cancer survivor, began using bags of birdseed to stuff their bras.

“Its a good thing the birds didn’t attack me,” Hamby said.

When reconstructive surgery became available a few years later, Hamby elected to undergo the procedure. As she was preparing for her appointment, her husband George pulled her aside and said that while he would support whatever decision she made, he wished that she would leave well enough alone — and she did.

Now, 44 years later, Hamby remains cancer free. She has since relocated the sprawling garden she meticulously maintained in Ohio to a one-bedroom apartment in State College, where cacti, pineapple plants, and flowers of white, pink and orange hues hang from the ceiling in baskets.

Hamby attended her first Pennsylvania Pink Zone game with a group of friends. Sunday will mark her third trip to the event at the Bryce Jordan Center, where she says that she enjoys seeing others who have beaten breast cancer. While her walker may preclude her from joining the other survivors on the floor at halftime, she’ll be with them up in the stands, where their bond will no longer go unspoken.

Pam and Sue

The first person Pam Asencio called was her mother.

The Port Matilda resident had been receiving regular exams and checkups since the age of 35. Her most recent mammogram had occurred three and half months prior and come back clean. But three days shy of her 40th birthday, there it was: a lump.

On the other end of the phone, Sue Davis was gently trying to persuade her daughter to schedule a same-day appointment with the doctor. Davis’ own breast cancer diagnosis had arrived in the early ’90’s, when she was 53 years old, and then again 10 years later. She considered the possibility that her daughter may have to grapple with the same disease.

“I was worried, but back then, times were different, and there was no discussion of heredity,” Davis said.

Doctors confirmed that Asencio had inherited her family’s cancer, but the nature and larger size of her tumor required a more extensive range of treatment that included chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction and an oophorectomy, to prevent ovarian cancer.

Davis attended each of Asencio’s surgeries, helped to care for her three young grandchildren, and assisted with household chores while her daughter recovered from chemo.

“It was so nice to have her in my corner,” Asencio said.

Asencio attended her first Pennsylvania Pink Zone game shortly after receiving her first round of chemo in 2010. Today, she’s celebrating five years of being cancer free and will attend Sunday’s game with her mother, husband and kids.

“We enjoy going as it is a celebration of all who have survived this horrible disease, and it grounds me to appreciate and be thankful that I’m still here,” Asencio said.

Her gratitude has propelled her toward advocacy. Asencio uses her position as an independent sales rep for Silpada Designs Jewelry to help fundraising efforts for Pink Zone, American Cancer Society and Relay for Life.

Both she and Davis have tested positive for the BRCA2 gene associated with breast cancer, which means Asencio’s own children have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease. Asencio stresses the importance of men and women receiving regular exams and check-ups.

“I believe that I’m still on earth to provide guidance and support for others who are diagnosed with cancer,” she said.

Shelby

There’s not much that can slow down Shelby Shoemaker. The Huntingdon resident spends five days a week on her elliptical machine; she averages a 13-minute mile — not bad for a retiree, or a two-time survivor of cancer.

Shoemaker is the founder and de facto leader of the Pink Ribbon Support Group, a gathering of breast cancer survivors that has met once a month in her Huntingdon home for the past nine years. What began as a small circle of four women has expanded; to date, 35 survivors are active in the group, which includes members from as far away as Hollidaysburg.

Shoemaker will make the pilgrimage to the Pink Zone along with 18 other members of the Pink Ribbon Support Group. This will be the group’s fifth year in attendance.

“There’s a lot of fun and laughter,” Shoemaker said.

It didn’t necessarily start out that way. Shoemaker lost her parents and brother to cancer and has faced the disease twice herself, first in her colon in 1989 and then in her breasts in 2002. Both cancers have long since gone into remission, but the head of the Pink Ribbon Support Group said that she continues to feel blessed to be a survivor.

“God has just been so good to me, and that’s why I want to give back to anyone that I can,” Shoemaker said

Her support group consists of veterans that have fought the war against cancer and won and newcomers who are just beginning the battle. Some have been referred to Shoemaker through JC Blair Memorial Hospital, where she spent 24 years as a registered nurse, while others came to her by way of the American Cancer Society. Shoemaker said she believes that The Pink Ribbon Support Group can provide a source of empathy and insight for women who are still trying to find their way across uncertain terrain.

“If I don’t happen to have the experience, there’s always somebody in the group who has,” Shoemaker said.

Last Christmas, the ladies extended their altruism into the community, baking cookies and packaging them for delivery to Meals on Wheels and an area soup kitchen. Still, Shoemaker said she looks forward to rejoining the even larger community of fellow cancer survivors who will assemble at Pink Zone.

“Its just like you’ve known them forever. The camraderie is unbelievable,” Shoemaker said.

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