6 Faces of Breast Cancer
Separately, the New Orleanians we profile share different experiences of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Together, their stories show us what it’s like to fight breast cancer with courage and compassion.
October 13th, 2014 by: Lianna Patch
When artist Eden Gass was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in fall 2013, she embarked on a rapid journey that would change both her perspective on life and her artwork. Advocating for breast awareness and self-exams, Gass emphasizes that not all breast cancers present as lumps. “I’m a big example of early detection,” she says. “Even though the tumor was larger than a golf ball, it hadn’t become invasive yet.” She was able to avoid radiation and chemotherapy, undergoing a single mastectomy and simultaneous breast reconstruction. “Had I waited, or had I ignored it, my story could have been really different,” she says.
Dealing with her diagnosis, and the physical and psychological aftermath of her mastectomy, was difficult for Gass — but eventually, she says, she turned a corner.
“You realize you have bigger fish to fry in life,” she says. “You have a certain amount of the rest of your life left. Life is short, and you have time left on earth thanks to the fact that you beat the cancer.”
DRAWING THE FUTURE
Previously, Gass created small pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings of French Quarter scenes, selling them as part of Jackson Square’s outdoor artist colony. Now, dressed in heels and wearing lipstick to celebrate her femininity, she creates artwork of women’s bodies. “The work functions on two levels,” she says. “It’s fun if you don’t understand the deeper meaning.” Creating this work has helped her connect with other survivors — and with a deeper part of her artistic identity. “I finally achieved the meaning as an artist that I’d always hoped for,” she says.
She refused to let cancer disrupt her plans. In the summer of 2012, Alicia Thomas was multitasking at her computer: completing assignments toward her master’s degree in counseling, while performing a breast self-exam. “I discovered a lump,” she says. “I had just had a mammogram in June 2012.”
Over the next two months, Thomas underwent another mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy. Post-biopsy, she got the news that the lump was Stage II breast cancer. “You would have thought someone had said something had happened to my child,” she says. “I lost it.”
But when she regained her composure, Thomas resolved not to let her diagnosis — or her treatment — interfere with finishing school and taking care of her daughter. “I had to continue with my normal routine,” she says. “I had to go on because of my child; because of my husband; because of my family and friends. It was like: We’re going to beat this thing, and that’s going to be it.”
DEDICATION + DETERMINATION
She underwent a unilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, followed by chemotherapy and hormone therapy. In March 2013, she lost all of her hair, but, she met the loss with a cheerful attitude. “I thought I looked beautiful with a bald head,” she says. “Chemo took a lot out of me, but I continued to push myself.”
Thomas recently completed her master’s degree on schedule, having maintained a stellar grade point average throughout her cancer treatment. She sees herself as a supportive role model for other women diagnosed with breast cancer.
“God saw fit to give it to me, and I’m going to set an example and show others what they can do if they’re diagnosed,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a death sentence. You can go on and do the things you’re determined to do.”
This intensive care nurse sees every day as a gift. After a routine mammogram came back with abnormal results, Metairie native Michelle Verdin had a breast biopsy in spring 2013. A lover of the outdoors, Verdin was taking a walk when her surgeon called to tell her that the biopsy had indicated cancer. “The call came while walking in the park with my mother, who is also a breast cancer survivor,” she says. “I immediately started crying, and my mother knew before I could even tell her.”
Sharing the news with her husband and children was Verdin’s next step, which she says took considerable bravery. “Telling my husband and children was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she says. “Your first thought is, ‘How is this going to affect their peace of mind and stability — and who’s going to take care of my family if I’m not here?’”
Verdin underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction in December 2013, followed by chemotherapy.
“I remained positive and determined to finish my chemotherapy treatments and get back to my ‘normal’ life,” she says. “By God’s love and grace, I made it through all my treatments with minimal side effects and no complications.”
Along with her faith, the support Verdin received from family, friends and even strangers, helped her stay upbeat throughout her treatment. Now, she passes that support on to other women fighting breast cancer — and she takes care to tell her loved ones daily how much she cares for them. “The love and bond I share with my husband and children has never been stronger, and we are so grateful for all God has blessed us with,” she says. “I definitely don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.”
This cancer survivor found the courage to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. My journey started when I received a phone call from the diagnostic clinic on my daughter’s fourth birthday — December 4, 2012 — telling me they saw something in my annual mammogram,” says Stacy Neuburger, an accounting and human resources specialist. “I was scared to death.”
After multiple tests, including mammograms, ultrasounds and two biopsies, Neuburger learned she was in the early stages of lobular breast cancer. “When I left that office that day, I went into fight mode,” she says. “I was going to do whatever I had to do to make as painless as I could for my daughter.”
Neuburger researched her cancer extensively, and decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery — a choice her oncologist supported, due to her mammogram density. “Today, I know it was the best decision,” she says. “I have seven incisions. I call them my ‘tattoos with better stories.’” She found support in her family, friends and faith — and in her daughter’s understanding of what was happening to Mom. “She listened to every word I said, and loved me so sweetly through every moment,” Neuburger says.
These days, Neuburger sees life differently.
“My priority in life now is to live for today, smile today and make people around me smile,” she says. “I live by the famous quote: ‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take your breath away.’” She also dedicates time to educate and support other women with breast cancer. “They are scared and don’t know what to expect, and it is comforting to have someone to walk with you through it,” she says.
Life after cancer can be free of fear. In 2003, when Toni Naquin learned that she had Stage I breast cancer, her first thought was, “I am not going to die,” she says. “I remember thinking: ‘I have a baby that I can’t abandon. I will beat this.’” Naquin was the first in her family to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her son, Ryder, was just 10 months old as she underwent a lumpectomy, six months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation to fight the rapidly growing cancer. “I put all of my trust in God, and followed my doctor’s orders,” she says. “My husband, Chris, was my rock.” Luckily, Naquin experienced few side effects from chemo, aside from losing her hair. “Our son was bald, and everyone said that he and I looked so much alike!” she says.
TRUST IN GOD
But Naquin’s journey wasn’t over. She was prescribed Tamoxifen, a drug given to women to discourage recurrence of breast cancer, for five years. “After being on it for six months, a uterine ultrasound was performed — because this drug increases your chance of uterine cancer,” she says. When her gynecologist saw changes in the lining of her uterus, Naquin opted for a total hysterectomy in May 2005 to rule out the possibility of developing uterine cancer.
Three years ago, Naquin’s close friend battled a recurrence of her own breast cancer, ultimately deciding to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. “After watching her go through it again, I decided that that was a road I did not want to go down again either, so I opted to have the same procedure,” Naquin says.
Naquin will be this year’s honorary survivor chair of New Orleans’ Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
“I have told my story so many times — it never gets old,” she says. “Every time I think about all of this, I am reminded how blessed we are.”
This Winn-Dixie store director feeds the city in more ways than one. Throughout his 33-year career as a store director for Winn-Dixie, Clayton Majeste says that the store has “always found a strong partnership with the community.” This commitment meshes well with Majeste’s long commitment to volunteering with organizations, like the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer program.
As a volunteer at the Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, where cancer patients from out of town can stay while they receive treatment in New Orleans, Majeste gets to know patients of all ages and diagnoses. “I’m not going to say it’s always easy, but it is very touching,” he says. “You go there, and you meet people, and it changes your life and your perception of things. It makes you very grateful for your health.”
TRUST IN GOD
Last year, Majeste’s mother, a 20-year survivor of breast cancer, was diagnosed with a recurrence. Despite excellent treatment, she ultimately succumbed. “She got to live to the age of 83, so that was a wonderful thing, because through all the testing and all the processes, she got to live a nice, long life,” Majeste says.
In partnership with other store directors, Majeste has spearheaded a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer donation drive, which takes place at Winn-Dixie from Sept. 24 through Oct. 28. Customers can donate as they check out, with a simple scan of a donation card kept at the register. Stores will also hold raffles and other events to raise funds.
With six Winn-Dixie store districts in New Orleans, “I think that some store directors are making it really personal this time,” Majeste says. His district alone plans to raise $50,000 this year. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer will also hold a walkathon on Nov. 1, starting at Champions Square.
Majeste has seen his Winn-Dixie colleagues’ enthusiasm grow as they join him to volunteer at Hope Lodge. “I do this because I have a real passion for this,” he says. “I just hope this year brings about more donations than we’ve ever received in the past.” makingstrides.acsevents.org