Breast cancer survivors share stories of hope and inspiration

Breast cancer survivors who shared their stories with The Tribune-Democrat include, clockwise from top left, Marie Amistadi, Shelly Berkebile, Sharon Judd, Theresa (Voytko) Lehman, Natalie Lyons, Allie Marguccio and Kylie Myers.

After receiving the diagnosis every woman fears, these breast cancer survivors – interviewed originally by The Tribune-Democrat in 2017 – now say they are doing well and through their treatments and embracing life.

When Allie Marguccio was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went through a stage of mourning.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it,” the Indiana County woman said.

But thanks to some good advice, Marguccio said she ignored that impulse.

“Don’t be afraid to tell everyone what you’re going through, because you’ll need all of the friends and family you can find to be in your corner for this,” she said. “I’ve had a world of support.”

A routine mammogram uncovered a tumor in late 2016.

Marguccio underwent a lumpectomy, followed by 24 weeks of chemotherapy.

Today, she said she’s doing great.

“I’ve had two mammograms so far, and both came back clear,” Marguccio said. “Other than a few lingering side effects, I’m doing fine.”

She added that every six months for two years she’ll follow up with mammograms and once a year with the oncologist.

“My prognosis was good from the start, so I’m hopeful that it will continue to be that way,” Marguccio said.

She said the best advice she can give to other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer is to find yourself a support system.

“That’s what got me through it,” Marguccio said. “People were cheering me on, and that gave me something to hang on to because it’s easy to go inward and feel sorry for yourself.”

No time to procrastinate

In 2015, Shelly Berkebile was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The struggle she went through in fighting the disease made her realize the importance of taking advantage of the time she had.

“Things that you put off, now you think ‘I guess I shouldn’t put this off any more,’ ” the Windber woman said.

Her treatment included a double mastectomy, undergoing chemotherapy and having her ovaries removed.

“Before I went through cancer, I didn’t realize how long cancer would affect you or to what degree it would affect you,” Berkebile said.

Her long-term treatment includes yearly CAT scans and a estrogen blocker medication for the next four years.

But she said she’s feeling good, and in the past year her energy has picked up.

“I turned 50 in August, so that was a big milestone,” Berkebile said.

She said she gives God all the glory for her recovery.

“It’s a long road, but it’s doable,” Berkebile said. “It may seem like it’s never going to end, but things do get better.”

‘You have to rise above it’

It was in 2015 when Natalie Lyons noticed a tender spot on her breast that she brushed off as a pulled muscle until the problem persisted months later.

“I said nothing to no one,” the Somerset woman said.

Eventually, she had a mammogram that was followed by a biopsy. The news was cancer.

“I just sat on the back porch and cried hysterically,” Lyons said. “But I never asked God, ‘Why me? Because I know what God brings us to, he brings us through.”

Her treatment consisted of six double rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, 33 rounds of radiation and 16 maintenance chemotherapy treatments.

But she said she’s feeling good. The “chemo brain” – a term used to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment – has subsided and her energy has slowly been returning.

“As of May, I am cancer-free,” Lyons said. “I’ll go for a mammogram in October and probably a CT scan.”

Her advice to women diagnosed with breast cancer is to “keep your faith and keep your focus with humor.”

“You can’t let it overwhelm you, and you can’t let it define you. You have to rise above it,” Lyons said. “Support is the best, so keep your support team close by. My family, my friends and my relationship with Christ has been my silver lining in my journey.” 

‘You’ve got to have a positive attitude’

Work didn’t stop for Sharon Judd during her battle with breast cancer. The Duncansville resident never missed a day of work at Growing In Faith Together Learning Center, in Roaring Spring, Blair County.

“I figured that I had it, I wanted rid of it, and life goes on,” Judd said.

Life quickly changed for Judd after witnessing the father of one of the children at the learning center suffer a massive stroke. Seeing the man, who was in his early 30s, going through such a traumatic ordeal was a wake-up call for Judd. She immediately made an appointment with her doctor to schedule a mammogram.

“That’s when they found the mass,” she said.

Judd endured 20 daily radiation treatments following her surgery last June and was then prescribed Anastrozole, which she will be required to take for the next 10 years. The medication is used to treat breast cancer in women who have gone through menopause.

“I’m still taking the medication,” Judd said. “One year down, so nine more years.”

Judd recently went for her checkup mammogram and said that everything came back fine. 

As a result, she can now lessen her visits to her radiation doctor and medical oncologist.

Judd, who still busies herself working, said keeping a positive attitude really helped her get through the tough times.

“It’s just nice to have a support system, but you’ve got to have a positive attitude,” she said.

She also stresses the importance for women to get mammograms. 

“Make sure you get your mammograms,” she said. “It saves lives.” 

‘If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right?’

Keeping a sense of humor was a little tactic that made a big difference for Theresa (Voytko) Lehman during her bout with cancer. 

The Johnstown native wore funny shirts with the messages “nothing to see here” after her double mastectomy two years ago, and “under construction” during her ongoing breast reconstruction procedures. 

“It’s things like that that just keep me laughing,” Lehman said. “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right?”

Lehman, who has been connected to the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center since its inception, was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016. 

Years before her battle with the disease, she spent several years working with U.S. Rep. John Murtha, who, along with his wife, Joyce Murtha, brought national attention to the issue of breast cancer through their efforts in the Johnstown and Washington, D.C., regions.

Following her diagnosis in 2016, Lehman underwent a double mastectomy that left her cancer-free. However, while her battle with the disease was over, her journey was far from being finished.

Issues with her breast reconstruction have required multiple surgeries since her double mastectomy. Lehman has undergone a total of nine surgeries – with five of them occurring since she last spoke with The Tribune-Democrat just one year ago.

“I’ll be going back into surgery on November 6th, for hopefully my 10th and final one,” said Lehman, who has lived in Arizona since 2010.

Due to infection and a series of issues, Lehman underwent an extensive procedure in May at the Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus.  

“I had to have breast expanders in, and my body wouldn’t take the expanders, so it wouldn’t take the implants either,” she said. “So it had pretty much come down to the choice of losing my breasts or I could have tried the DIEP procedure – where they literally took fat from my stomach and gave me a breast back on my left side.

“It’s pretty fantastic, actually,” she said. “Pretty soon I’m not going to be able to wear the shirt that says ‘Nothing to see here’ anymore. So that makes me feel good.”

Lehman’s spirits are flying high as her journey nears its end. “Now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m like ‘Don’t do anything to screw this up. You’re almost at the end here,’ ” she said “And that keeps me grounded and keeps my mind focused.”

The importance of check-ups

Johnstown resident Marie Amistadi was surprised to learn she had breast cancer in 2016. 

However, while the diagnosis was shocking, she knew that she wasn’t the first in her family to develop the disease. Her mother and cousin both died from it, which led her to suspect that genetics may be the link between the illness and her family.

“I thought, ‘Is something going on here? Should I be tested?’ ” she said.

Through testing Amistadi later found that she has a mutation in the BRCA2 gene that increases the risk that she’ll develop breast cancer.

Just nine months prior to her diagnosis, Amistadi also suffered a stroke that completely disabled the left side of her body. 

A few months after that, she was stricken with Bell’s palsy, a type of facial paralysis that weakens the muscles on one side of the face, causing them to droop or stiffen. As a result, treating Amistadi’s cancer became a challenge.

While she underwent a hysterectomy, her doctors said they couldn’t perform a mastectomy or put her on the medications that most other breast cancer patients take.

Twenty radiation treatments later, Amistadi is fully recovered and cancer-free.

“Everything is going real good,” she said. “I just saw Dr. (Ibrahim) Sbeiten, and everything looks good. I’m doing fine.”

Amistadi described her surgeon, Dr. Gerard Garguilo, as a “wonderful doctor.” Garguilo retired at the end of 2017. 

“I don’t know who the new doctor is coming in to take over for Garguilo, but I will see her in October,” she said. “I hope she is as good as Dr. Garguilo.”

Amistadi’s advice to other women is to not shy away from mammograms and checkups. 

“I’ve always gone for my checkups, and I never thought it would happen to me,” she said. “If I wouldn’t have gone for my checkup, I wouldn’t have known.”

'Kind of taken aback, in complete shock’

Kylie Myers was never one to go see a doctor regularly, but when a discharge from her left nipple continued to occur in 2016, she knew it was time to make an appointment.

The results of an ultrasound later revealed that Myers had what appeared to be the early stage of breast cancer.

“I was kind of taken aback, in complete shock,” Myers said.

Myers, a Cresson resident, hoped the results were wrong, but a biopsy showed that she had DCIS, which is the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast – a noninvasive form of breast cancer.

Adding to Myers’ troubles was the fact that she was triple negative, which meant no hormone treatment would work to combat the cancer. She was then left with two options: radiation or mastectomy.

Myers ultimately decided to move forward with a bilateral mastectomy. The surgery would eliminate any chance of getting cancer in her right breast and cosmetically it would look better, she said.

Today, Myers is cancer-free and thankful for the ongoing support.

“I’ve been cleared of everything,” Myers said. “I’ve had a couple follow-ups. All of my surgeries have taken place, and I’ve healed. So it’s back to work now, finally. Everything has been good so far.”

Myers continues to visit with Dr. Deborah Sims every six months at the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Windber. 

“You get nervous every time you go back for an appointment, because you’re never in the clear 100 percent with everything, but you still have to make sure you get follow-ups and keep on top of everything,” Myers said.

With everything that Myers went through in the past two years, she was still able to find a positive takeaway. 

“When you experience something like that it makes things more clear about what’s really important in life,” she said. “And how many people are always there to step up when needed.” 

Kelly Urban is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5073. Follow her on Twitter @KellyUrban25.

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