SURVIVOR PROFILE Bonnie Pollack Gordon

In our recurring series of survivor profiles,Women interviews a different survivor each quarter to hear how women at various stages of managing a cancer diagnosis have approached their situation. We hope these personal glimpses of the strength and the diversity among women living with cancer will inspire our readers.

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Briefly describe your diagnosis and treatment.

A brush of my hand across my left breast changed my life. In 1993 I was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma, with one positive node. Because my cancer was not responsive to hormonal therapy, I chose to participate in a randomized NSABP [National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project] clinical trial following my lumpectomy. I underwent four regimens of Adriamycin® [doxorubicin] and Cytoxan® (cyclophosphamide), followed by radiation.

In August 2009, after 16 cancer-free years, I was diagnosed with a new primary cancer (found during a routine mammogram). It was ductal carcinoma in situ, a precancer that was estrogen-positive. I chose to have a  double mastectomy with an immediate one-step reconstruction procedure.

What was your age and health status at the time of diagnosis?

I was 35 years old the first time I was diagnosed and 50 when I received my second—and hopefully last—diagnosis. I was physically very healthy but emotionally very stressed each time. At the first diagnosis, I was knee-deep in diapers, with 5-, 2-, and 1-year-old children, and the second time I was in the midst of a major corporate restructuring.

Do you have a family history of this disease?

My mother had breast cancer and passed away the same month that I was diagnosed—November 1993. She was 67. I also have aunts and cousins who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

How did your diagnosis affect your work and family life?

I had three small children and a husband, and I owned my own business. Saying no to school functions and freelance jobs and asking for help from my friends and family was tough to do. Chemo was a roller coaster, filled with good days and bad. The strain proved to be too tough for my husband; just after I had finished my radiation treatments, we divorced.

I have been happily remarried to a wonderful man for 12 years. He has helped raise my three children, now 22, 18, and 17. He has been my rock following this second diagnosis, helping me get through the surgery, dealing with the drains from the double mastectomy, and being there as a true partner. Walgreens, my employer, has also been very supportive—they allowed me all of the time I needed to have the surgery and recover.

Where did you turn for emotional support following your diagnosis?

Friends and family were key in helping me through chemo and in juggling the needs of my kids. I also turned to a support group for women diagnosed with cancer in their twenties and thirties, and I partnered with a wonderful psychologist who helped me work through losing my mom, my own diagnosis, and my eventual divorce.

What did you learn from your cancer experience?

What seems to be a death sentence can actually make you stronger. For me, being a cancer survivor brings with it a responsibility to “make pink lemonade out of lemons.” I am committed to helping guide women through their breast cancer journey, especially those who don’t have the financial or emotional support that I was lucky enough to have.

What is your current health status, and how often do you receive follow-up care?

As I move beyond my mastectomy, I am feeling strong and am adjusting to my “new normal.” I alternate every three months between visits to my surgeon and to my oncologist. I will be on tamoxifen [Nolvadex®] for the next two years, followed by a regimen of aromatase inhibitors.

Do you have any tips for newly diagnosed patients?

Call upon the coping mechanisms that have gotten you through difficult times before, and know that you will get through. Know that you cannot be superwoman, listen to your body, prioritize your energy use, and participate in activities that energize you. Know that you are not in this alone—reach out to support groups, hotlines, or organizations that can provide guidance and support.