Survivor Stories

Three ordinary women. Three extraordinary tales of survival.
By Margaret VanEchaute

DANIELLE’S STORY

Danielle Messina is an inspiration to thousands—not that she would have ever planned it that way, of course. Known by many as the “Glamorganic Goddess,” and as “Coach” to hundreds more, Danielle has dedicated her life to sharing her passions with others.

For nearly thirty years, this energy was channeled into figure skating; more recently, her blog about truly natural beauty has made a resonating impact among health-conscious online communities. However, while Danielle has been fortunate enough to pursue both her passions in life, the shift from one to the other happened in a way she could never have imagined.

Danielle discovered her love of ice-skating at the tender age of two, and spent much of her childhood competing and traveling all over the world. Eventually, she made the transition from competitor to coach, and worked for fifteen years passing on her skills to promising young students. Often working six and seven days a week, Danielle spent many long hours at the rink; and by the summer of 2009, she was beginning to feel as though all her hard work was starting to take its toll.

At the time, Danielle attributed her lack of energy and grayish pallor to her underactive thyroid, especially when coupled with spending so much time around sick kids. But as time went on, her colds got worse and lasted longer, and though she could tell that something was wrong, “I didn’t look like what I thought cancer would look like,” she says. While lying on her couch one afternoon, Danielle happened to rest her hand on her chest—and the bump she found there changed her life forever. Despite having no health insurance at the time, she managed to battle her way to see a breast specialist more than two hours from her New Jersey home. The shocking diagnosis came just days later. Gone was the invincible, carefree attitude she’d held for years—Danielle had been diagnosed with breast cancer at just 31 years old.

Before the month was over, Danielle had undergone two surgeries: one to remove the lump, and a second to remove her under-arm lymph nodes and “clean up the borders,” eliminating any remaining cancer cells that were missed during the first procedure. Next came 33 radiation treatments performed over a six-week timeframe. Once those finished up, Danielle made a critical treatment choice; from then on, she opted to pursue the most natural therapies possible (unless her life depended on it), declining both chemotherapy and a five-year Tamoxifen prescription in favor of more integrative remedies.

Many factors went into this all-important decision, including her desire to avoid unwanted side effects from too many pharmaceuticals, and her hope for having children of her own in the near future. Tamoxifen, an estrogen-disrupting drug that reduces the risk of tumor recurrence in breast cancer survivors, can prevent women from having children for up to seven years; and since having a family is incredibly important to Danielle, this path was simply not an option.

Her decision to go natural might still be considered against the grain of conventional medicine, but Danielle stands by her choice. She admits she still has a long way to go, but is quick to explain that by no means is she attempting to self-diagnose or fight alone. She works closely with a nutritionist, goes in for required mammograms and MRIs, and is currently saving up to visit naturopathic doctors—because, due to the complexities of most health insurance policies, natural treatments are often out-of-pocket expenses.

It’s been an uphill battle, but so far, Danielle’s prognosis is clear; just two years later, she remains cancer free, and is doing everything in her power to prevent it from coming back. Because no one knows where cancer comes from, Danielle has adopted a lifestyle of caution, choosing to control—as much as possible what goes on and what goes in her body. She’s made drastic changes, from getting rid of her microwave to avoiding canned foods altogether, hoping to eliminate the responsible carcinogens.

Using the grocery store as her pharmacy, she also relies heavily on nutrition to fight recurrence: she juices, eats no sugar or processed foods, takes vitamins, does enzyme therapy, and has even reverted to making nearly everything,from bread to spaghetti sauce, from scratch. She admits it’s a lot of work, but in the end, she knows it’s been a positive change. “I feel happier living this type of lifestyle,” she says, though she wishes she hadn’t learned the hard way.

Danielle may have stopped skating, but her role as educator, mentor, and coach is far from over. Read more about her recovery—and the role her natural beauty blog played in theprocess—in our Get Inspired section on page 64.

 

JENNIFER'S STORY

When Jennifer Hanover was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29, her family knew just what to do.

“In the beginning, my mom and my sister and a friend of mine put together a ‘Pink Party’ for me,” she says. Friends and family came from miles around with pink-colored gifts, like towels and blankets, as well as other helpful items like snacks and lotions that they knew would soon come in handy. “My aunt even got me the wig I had picked out that I wanted,” she remembers.

Though not perhaps the most joyous occasion for a party, the groundwork of support laid at this gathering only grew throughout the hardships of the following year, becoming the singular source of strength, courage, and comfort that Jennifer credits with her survival.

Growing up in rural Michigan, Jennifer’s life has always revolved around her large, extended family (pictured below; Jennifer is second from the right). Her hometown of Buchanan is “just a quiet little place,” where she lives next door to her parents on the farm where she grew up. Between frequent family get togethers, her job as an oral surgeon’s assistant, and spending time on the farm, the last thought on Jennifer’s typically health-conscious mind was cancer.

In 2010, however, everything changed. “I had had the bump for awhile, but I didn’t really think it was anything,” she says. “Nobody was really all that concerned.” It wasn’t until she mentioned its existence to her aunts while on a camping trip that she learned her great aunt had had breast cancer at a very young age. At this alarming news, Jennifer scheduled an appointment with her doctor immediately.

Cue the phrase you never, ever want to hear your doctor say: “I’ve never really seen anything like this.” That’s when she knew things were bad.

When her usual practitioner couldn’t decipher the mammogram, they sent her on to a breast surgeon who performed a biopsy. And though he said he would call to let her know when to come back for the results, Jennifer ended up learning she had cancer in about the worst possible way: In the car. On the way to a friend’s house. Over the phone. Can you imagine?

“You just don’t think at 29 that it’s anything that’s going to be that bad,” she says.

Despite the unorthodox nature of her diagnosis, Jennifer immediately put on a steely demeanor of determination. Her treatment began at an integrative cancer center about half an hour away in Mishawaka, Indiana, where the first step was chemotherapy. Jennifer had a port implanted in her chest where the medicine, administered by doctors wearing masks, gowns, and gloves, was injected once a week. And though she put on a brave face, it made her extraordinarily tired. “I wouldn’t go to work, and that’s not me, not to go to work,” she says. “I did miss time, but I didn’t like it. I really tried to be there.”

Surgery was the next step; but because the tumor hadn’t responded to chemo as well as hoped, Jennifer learned she was having a mastectomy just minutes before being wheeled into the operating room—again, another traumatic way to receive bad news. Her family took the news hard; but this time, it just rolled off Jennifer’s back. By that point, “you’re not thinking about every little thing,” she says bravely. “You’re just looking at the end goal.”

After the surgery, in which the lymph nodes under her right arm were also removed, Jennifer underwent a second round of chemo, then seven weeks of radiation. “Radiation was really hard,” she says. “I was so sore. It just burned and burned and burned.” This, however, was the final step, and her radiation treatments finished in June. A weeklong coastal vacation in Alabama and Florida provided some much needed physical and spiritual healing, and, now cancer-free, Jennifer is ready to begin living normally again though “normal” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Jennifer is now keenly aware of her eating habits; and fortunately, eating well is easy when you live on a bountiful farm. Her family raises grass-fed beef, and Jennifer has begun relying on homegrown vegetables from her own garden.

Though her energy is only just beginning to come back, she’s excited by the prospect of fewer doctors’ visits, fewer pills (apart from her five-year Tamoxifen prescription), and the reconstructive surgery scheduled for next year. And through it all, her positive attitude has never taken a hit. “I’m not someone to sit around and feel bad for myself,” she says. “I always knew I was going to do it.”

Jennifer may be a fighter, but she knows she could have never done it without the tireless support of her family. “Let people help you,” she advises other fighters. “Take people’s help—because you’re gonna need it.”

 

SHARI’S STORY

Shari DuBrow has never been one to put her own needs first. “I think I am better at helping other people than at helping myself,” she says, always strongly identifying with the roles of dedicated employee, devoted caretaker, and passionate pet owner. A self-professed lover of  numbers, Shari has worked at the same company for more than twenty years in Glenview, Illinois, where she lives with her “fur son” Ozzie—a lovable 16-pound mutt with the hair of a poodle, the coloring of a schnauzer, and the body of a dachshund. With no immediate family members in the Chicago area, Ozzie is Shari’s family, their bond an integral part of Shari’s victory over cancer.

An only child, Shari diligently cared for her ailing mother for many years, and when her mother passed away in 2006, Shari at last allowed herself a little time to relax. It was only then, after years of putting someone else first, that she realized something was wrong. She was suddenly acutely aware of odd aches and pains, weird allergies, strange hormonal issues, and other symptoms that had unknowingly been accumulating over the years. This overall sense of feeling “off ” sparked what became a two-year journey through countless waiting rooms in search of answers. Her regular doctors had no explanation, but she says she always had a gut feeling that there was something more.

As time went on, Shari become frustrated with the “here’s a pill, take it, and goodbye” attitude of conventional medicine, and instead began looking into holistic alternatives that treated the whole person and not just symptoms. Through her own initiative, she began eating right, taking vitamins and nutritional supplements, and visiting integrative clinics, always hoping to find a doctor who could think outside the box. Though she admits all she wanted to do was to stick her fingers in her ears and pretend like nothing was wrong, she finally found the answer.

In November 2008, Shari was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 51. Thanks to her constant vigilance, the tiny tumor in her left breast was only stage one. Despite the weight of this diagnosis, Shari couldn’t bear the thought of not working during her firm’s busy winter months, once again placing her own needs second and postponing her treatment. In February 2009, she underwent lumpectomy surgery to remove the cancer in its entirety. The procedure went so well that Shari opted to skip chemotherapy altogether—and after six and a half weeks of radiation, she was declared completely cancer-free.

Nearly three years later, Shari is still thriving. She checks in with her oncologist every four months, schedules a routine mammogram every six, and still has a couple of years to go with her five-year Tamoxifen prescription. Through the whole process, her only regret is having never worked with a nutritionist—and though she admits she got lucky with the relative simplicity of her diagnosis and treatment, by no means was it easy to go through alone. “I didn’t get that emotional support from a close network,” she says. “I missed out on that.”

However, just as there are alternative forms of medicine, so are there different ways to heal. Even more than physical treatment, Shari found healing and a new sense of purpose by connecting with other survivors through online communities. Through Facebook, she has discovered and attended countless cancer-related seminars, expos, conventions, shows, and meetings around the Chicago area, each time hoping that by simply striking up a conversation and sharing the knowledge she has accumulated, she will somehow contribute to the larger cause. Through the Army of Women, she volunteered to participate in a study to provide relaxation and “mind over matter” support for newly diagnosed women wrestling with the fear, anxiety, and alienation of cancer, all because she did not have those advantages herself. Giving back has given her hope—and so it would seem that in trying to help everyone else, Shari has inadvertently helped herself.

But more than any medical or integrative treatment, her largest source of comfort has, of course, been Ozzie—who, even at 12 years old, is always waiting for her in the window when she gets home from work. “Doctor Ozzie,” as she likes to call him, was named long before Shari was aware of media health-guru Dr. Oz, but she can’t deny this coincidence must have been providential. “For some reason, when he’s next to me, and I hear his breathing, it calms me down,” she says. “If I didn’t have Ozzie, I would be a wreck.” It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Shari strongly believes in dog therapy. “If a person loves animals,” she says, “I think that’s the best medicine.”