Living With Cancer
Paying It Forwards: Life After Cancerby Wendy Wegner
Maybe you’ve noticed a small group of women in New York’s Manhattan, recognized mainly by their limitless palette of wig colors, shapes, and sizes. But chances are, you couldn’t tell who was celebrating her triumph over cancer, and whose battle against the disease had just begun.
With her wedding just seven weeks away, the last thing 32-year-old Jennifer Finkelstein expected was to be dragged into the bathroom in the middle of the night, inspected under harsh fluorescent lights. Her fiancée Robert, a physician, was concerned about a lump he detected in her breast.
Engaged to a doctor and raised by one (her father), Jennifer was no stranger to medicine, but had never experienced anything serious on a personal level. The next day, she visited a surgeon, Dr. Nancy Elliott. “I’ll never forget the look on her face when she was doing the sonogram,” Jennifer recalls. “Right away, I was whisked into the next room for a mammogram and a biopsy.”
When pathology results arrived, she heard something she never expected: cancer.
“Until I heard those words, there was no way that was going to happen to me. I immediately thought I was going to die,” says Jennifer. “To me, cancer was a terminal illness, not a chronic disease. I had never seen anyone turn the corner.”
But Jennifer was determined to do just that. Despite having to undergo a mastectomy five weeks before her wedding, she did everything she could to maintain normalcy in her life. “Even though cancer took my breast, took my hair, and temporarily took my spirit, it was not going to take my wedding,” she says. One week after the ceremony, Jennifer began chemotherapy during the time she was supposed to be honeymooning with her new husband.
The first time Jennifer remembers feeling relaxed after her diagnosis was the moment she met Ellen Lowey. Referred by a close friend, Jennifer walked through the door of this then stranger’s home and was greeted with a tight hug and a few memorable words: “We are going to get through this.”
Ellen gave Jennifer the names and phone numbers of local doctors, surgeons, oncologists, health food stores, and the best wig shops in town. An attorney and mother of three children with three dogs, it was impressive that Ellen was so well-known – especially because she was not personally a cancer survivor. “She’s never gone through it herself,” says Jennifer. “She’s this angel… I knew that when I was on the other side of this and when I came out of this, if I could be half as good a person as she was, that would make a big difference. I wanted to be a better person.”
Soon after their introduction, Ellen set Jennifer up on a lunch date with a young woman she had helped through treatment the year before.
“I watched her walk into this restaurant,” Jennifer says. “Seeing her had the most profound effect on me.” During treatment, Jennifer’s doctor had shown her a photograph of a breast cancer survivor who was now cancer-free and living a healthy life. While the idea of life after cancer was comforting, she did not see herself in the face of the older woman in the photo. But meeting Ellen’s friend made her realize that younger women were also fighting this disease… and they were winning.
The new friend took Jennifer under her wing and quickly gave her an important gift – a collection of headscarves she no longer needed. “Something happened there, it was like the passing of a torch,” says Jennifer. “It was like she was saying, ‘It’s your turn, you’re going to do this.’”
Next, Ellen accompanied Jennifer to have her head shaved in an effort to avoid the trauma many women feel watching their hair fall out on their pillows or in the shower. For a long time, though, Jennifer couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, fearful of the unrecognizable person staring back.
Instead of allowing the transition to cause her further despair, Jennifer decided to be proactive. During treatment, she reached out to others and quickly met six women living half a mile from her home in Manhattan who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer – all under the age of 40. An unofficial mentor, she offered treatment advice much the same way Ellen had for her – suggesting doctors, health food stores, ginger candies and “all the little things the medical professionals forget to tell you about,” she says.
Jennifer accompanied the women to their chemotherapy appointments and simply gave comfort and offered company to many of them whose families lived far away, often in other countries.
This was how a tradition began. Two weeks after one of the women in Jennifer’s group completes chemotherapy, they celebrate with a special, extravagant, cancer-left-behind night out. Red wigs, purple wigs, black wigs – every color, shape, and length imaginable – all in an effort to unite these women in different stages of treatment and survival.
“When everyone’s wearing a wig, no one can tell who the cancer victim is,” says Jennifer. “At the end of the day, it’s really just hair.” These outings not only offer a time for the women to bond and share stories, but it gives them the chance to feel normal during a very unusual time in their life.
This past May 28 not only marked Jennifer’s five-year wedding anniversary, it marked five years since her life was changed by cancer. Jennifer has no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and she does not carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. She has always eaten healthy, walked regularly, and she prides herself on never having smoked or done drugs.
“I used to be concerned about gaining five pounds. Now that doesn’t matter at all,” says Jennifer. “You can’t measure yourself by the number on a scale, by what size dress you wear, or your job title at work. People should measure themselves by how they have made a contribution to the world.”
And that’s exactly how she’s lived her life after surviving cancer. By giving back to the community of women around her, she hopes her experience has served a purpose.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes, and one in six will not be fortunate enough to call themselves a “survivor” like Jennifer.
“The most important thing you can do after this diagnosis – the best thing you can do by far – is to grab a pen and paper,” says Jennifer. “Because you’re about to learn a whole lot about yourself.”
Jennifer feels fortunate that she comes from a medical family, but knows that most women are not that lucky. She welcomes anyone newly diagnosed with breast cancer to reach out to her with questions or comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wendy Wegner is editor of SU2C Mag.