Cheryl possesses a smile that lights up a room. It’s an undeniable blend of mischief, optimism and a great sense of humor. She knows her share of pain and loss and yet she’s somehow figured out the key to maintaining a consistently positive mental attitude, with only the occasional lapses into turbulence.
A breast cancer survivor, Cheryl is the embodiment of the healing powers of friendship. The Brownie slogan “make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold” truly resonates with her. Friendships throughout Cheryl’s childhood as well as her high school and college years became an influential and important part of her world. Regardless of the personal and professional paths Cheryl pursued, her friends consistently remained vital to her sense of well-being.
Ups and Downs of Family Life
Cheryl’s parents, Annette and Halle, met when they were youngsters and married when they were barely out of their teens. Cheryl was the oldest of their three children.
In high school, Cheryl’s father serendipitously bought a second-run movie theater where she and one of her brothers worked. It seemed like there was always some interesting new adventure going on in her family. Consequently, Cheryl had the unique opportunity of being exposed to a wide variety of budding businesses at a young age. Sadly for Cheryl and her siblings, her parents divorced after her younger brother left for college. Her father remarried but died soon after, suddenly at the age of 51, forever altering their worlds.
After graduating with honors from Wheaton College (Norton, MA), Cheryl married young and like her mother gave birth to three children. Along the way she freelanced for some of the local newspapers and volunteered in her children’s schools and at a variety of charitable organizations.
After 16 years, Cheryl’s marriage ended in divorce. She shared, “It is difficult to say exactly what happened, but regardless, we both made an effort to keep our private business from disrupting the family and especially our children.” Today they have a unique situation where, even though her former husband remarried, they still celebrate milestones and birthdays together. They share custody of their children and never got caught in a tug-of-war or any of the nastiness that often emerges in the divorce process.
Cheryl has had many chapters in her life – from a career woman in Manhattan to married suburban homemaker to divorced freelance writer, editor and publicist. She is devoted to her children, now 24, 21 and 16, her Portuguese Water Dog, Pepper, and her partner, Alan. Like many women juggling multiple roles, Cheryl put herself and her health last on the “to do” list.
Never in her wildest dreams did Cheryl think that she could compromise her health to such an extent that she would one day end up fighting for her life!
A Cancer Diagnosis and Journey to Wellness
In 2006 Cheryl had a mammogram at the Imaging Center in Boston. The radiologist spotted something in her right breast, did an ultrasound and then tried to aspirate it. Nothing came out. Cheryl said that, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have recognized that this was not a cyst, but a solid mass and most likely a tumor that needed to be biopsied immediately.” The radiologist told her “to follow-up with her doctor.” Cheryl’s did not feel alarmed about getting to her doctor and her life felt chaotic at the time. In hindsight, Cheryl knows she needed to be more proactive and in charge of her own health care.
Late in 2006 she got a letter saying that the facility at One Brookline Place closed and she needed to collect the copies of her mammogram films or they would be put into storage. Cheryl neglected to pick up her films. Next Cheryl heard from her ob-gyn that he was leaving his practice and moving to California. In 2007, Cheryl was now without a gynecologist and any record of her history.
Finally in September 2007 she found a new doctor, and after 18 months, had her long overdue mammogram. She did not stay for the radiologist to read her film. About a week later she was asked to return for another round of films and to bring her last set of films with her. Cheryl now made her trek to the Boston Medical Center.
By the time the cancer was diagnosed it had spread outside of the ducts and into her lymph nodes, local advanced (or Stage IIIb). Her surgeon feared that the cancer may have spread to an inoperable lymph node, but as Cheryl put it, “Only by the grace of God and sheer luck did I dodge that bullet. I never dreamed that I would be grateful to have a Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, but the reality is that once the cancer spreads, the road to wellness is that much longer and tougher!”
She is extremely fortunate that the cancer did not metastasize to other parts of her body. Cheryl paid a price for her lax approach to her health care. She endured nearly a year of grueling treatment and surgeries to reach a stage where there was “no evidence of cancer.”
Cheryl continues to be on a medication regimen that produces a wide range of side effects and in January 2010, she underwent a bilaterial DIEP flap reconstructive surgery. She tries very hard not to let herself worry about recurrence, although the thought persists in the back of her mind. Cheryl remains committed to practicing her affirmations and self-hypnosis exercises on a daily basis.
Friends Helped Cheryl’s Healing Process
Throughout her cancer experience and beyond, Cheryl has leaned on her circle of wonderful, supportive, devoted friends. “I like to think that I am a very good friend to have and that I give a great deal to those I care about. So when I was diagnosed with cancer in January 2008, you might say it was karma that all of that giving was returned to me in spades.”
At first it was difficult for Cheryl to be the recipient and not the giver, but as she continued on her difficult journey she learned one of the most important lessons about healing. “You have to put yourself at the top of the list during this critical time. Everyone needs to feel needed and I think it was helpful to people who were closest to me to be able to ‘do’ something and not feel so helpless.” Cheryl feels fortunate that she is the type of person able to reach out and ask for help when she needs it. “I think it’s because I don’t feel as though I’m imposing – I feel as though I’m offering an opportunity to help me and then I will return the favor. It’s a give-and-take, which most friendships are.”
Everyone who knows Cheryl has heard her say, “No one survives cancer (or any illness or trauma) alone. It is a team effort – you need the support of family and friends. You need to gather a good medical team, one that you trust and feel comfortable and confident in. You need to have faith, hope and trust in people whom you have never even met.”
One of Cheryl’s most cherished memories is after she came home from her mastectomy; she noticed her front yard looked rather neglected. She loves gardening and had begun a project in her front yard before her surgery. A week after her return home, a group of her friends came over unsolicited and completed the job. “Every time I stood up to do something they all shouted, ‘Sit down, Cheryl!’” She has no doubt in her mind that part of the reason she had such a great outcome from her cancer diagnosis was due to the love and care she received from so many loving friends.
Cheryl tries to express her gratitude whenever possible. “Whenever I hear of someone being diagnosed with breast cancer now, I reach out and help them understand and get through this difficult time. Before this disease touched me, I never knew what to say or do. Now I feel like I can make a significant difference in the lives of others. It feels like it has become part of my mission in life.” Cheryl occasionally experiences some dark days, but she does what she can to maintain a positive outlook and the belief that she will survive and flourish.
Healing Herself and Making a Difference
Now she is trying to get to year five when she jumps into a much better statistical survival pool. For now, Cheryl is very proud of her role as a breast cancer survivor and advocate for good health for women. “That is one reason why I have stayed very involved at the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden, which is an extraordinary place for women undergoing cancer treatment. Besides serving on a committee for a fundraiser in 2009, I took part in their annual walk to raise money last October. I raised the most funds as a single walker. This year I hope to put together a team to walk there, and at the Making Strides event on the Esplanade.”
Cheryl currently gives inspirational talks at special events for AstraZeneca, including the 2009 Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. “It was one of the thrills of my life the first time I stood before 4,000 people and told my story.” She also participated in two science days for AstraZeneca, once with her oncologist, and once with one of her heroes in the breast cancer wars, Jacqueline Pimentel. Jacqueline lost her battle with cancer but Cheryl learned a great deal from her about maintaining a loving spirit and never succumbing to the disease. “Her expression NGUNGI! never give up, never give in, has been a rallying cry for many of us survivors.”
Friends and family encouraged Cheryl to endure her cancer fight, and their relentless support gives her the strength to carry on. “So if anyone asks me, do I think friendship is a key component to healing? The answer is unequivocally, yes!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “’To have a friend you have to be a friend.” That seems to be Cheryl’s motto for life.