Johnstown resident Valerie Allen thought long and hard before deciding to have a bilateral mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Maryann Cover, of Paint Township, remembers her family coming together after discovering that she had cancer.
It’s the diagnosis no woman wants to receive.
These women along with several others were interviewed by The Tribune-Democrat in 2016 to share their stories of battling breast cancer.
Today, we check in with these women and find that they are doing well, living life and thankful for each new day.
Maryann Cover: ‘Keep your spirits up’
Two things stick out to Maryann Cover from her bout with breast cancer.
One was the terrifying moment when she learned she had the disease.
The other is how her family pulled together to support her in the months that followed.
Cover, an executive assistant with H.F. Lenz Co. in Johnstown, said she first found a lump on her right side in May 2015.
A biopsy confirmed Cover’s fears just two days later.
“I remember Dr. (Gerard) Garguilo calling me at work and saying, ‘Well, there’s a little bit of cancer there,’ ” she said.
Cover said Garguilo’s plan was to shrink the lump with rounds of chemotherapy. However, before the end of her chemo sessions, doctors noticed the lump had started to grow again.
Cover soon found out that she had a “triple negative” form of the disease that couldn’t be treated by most post-surgery medications and measures – a complication that impacts approximately 15 percent of women with breast cancer.
Instead of having the lump removed, Cover decided to have a bilateral mastectomy done.
Cover said support from her husband, her mother, her two daughters and four stepsons made her battle with cancer a much easier one.
Today, she is living cancer-free and hasn’t had any problems since her initial encounter with the disease.
“Everything has been wonderful,” Cover said. “I haven’t had any problems.”
Cover said she finished radiation treatments in August.
“I just had my one-year checkup, and they said everything looks wonderful,” she said. “They moved me going to see my oncologist from every three months to every four months.
“Other than that, everything is quiet.”
Cover said her advice to those who may be dealing with a similar battle is to stay positive.
“I think that is the most important thing,” she said. “You have to keep your spirits up.”
Sandy Dively: ‘Wasn’t going to slow me down’
It was December 2014, and Sandy Dively went for a routine mammogram at Conemaugh Memorial Center’s breast imaging center in Richland Township.
Soon after, she received a letter in the mail notifying her that a follow-up exam was required because something had been detected in her left breast.
The Friedens resident made an appointment with Garguilo, who had been her breast care doctor for nearly 20 years.
“I said, ‘Let’s get this damn show on the road because I have too many places to go and things to do and things to see,’ ” Dively said.
A stereotactic breast biopsy was performed in January 2015, and confirmed Dively’s suspicions of having breast cancer.
“There was no doubt in my mind when he (Garguilo) wanted to do further tests that it was cancer,” Dively said. “I knew we had a problem.”
Dively’s schedule soon filled up with 16 treatments of radiation.
She finished her last round of radiation in April 2015.
“I’m doing wonderful,” Dively said. “I’ve had no setbacks.”
She is still taking her medication, attending doctor’s appointments and seeing her oncologist, but Dively said it’s a small price to pay for prevention.
She said aside from looking for a new breast care doctor – Garguilo will soon be retiring – she is spending her days traveling and working in her garden.
“I’ve slowed down because of age, but not because of the cancer,” she said.
Dively credits the support from her family, friends and doctors for getting her through the tough times.
“I honestly don’t think I would have felt this good without the support of my husband and my family and friends, and the doctors,” she said. “And the fact that I had made up my mind that this wasn’t going to slow me down – I had too many things to do.
“I just hope that anybody else that gets the diagnosis doesn’t take it as a death sentence,” Dively said, “because it’s a bump in the road. It can be overcome, and it will be overcome
– don’t give up.
“Cancer is not a death sentence. You can fight, and you can win.”
Judy Badowski: ‘You have to try to accept it’
In 1990, at the age of 39, Judy Badowski discovered a lump in her left breast.
“I’m a nurse, and I knew immediately in my head that it was cancer,” Badowski said.
“I told my husband, and he said it was probably nothing and it’s OK, but I was freaking out.”
Badowski was encouraged to go see a doctor by her friend and boss at the time, Lorraine Palumbo. It was soon after that Badowski was in front of a doctor.
“He sent me for a mammogram at Windber hospital, and the results said if I was concerned to watch it and repeat the mammogram in six months,” she said. “Now, this was 25 years ago, and it didn’t say there was anything suspicious.”
She decided that the best approach to the lump would be to remove it. And six weeks later, Badowski was told that she had breast cancer.
The Paint Township resident didn’t know how to handle her breast cancer diagnosis. She had three children at home and wondered if she was going to live for her them.
“You hear some of the stories of how strong some women were,” she said. “But let me tell you, I wasn’t.”
After a few options were discussed with her, Badowski chose to go undergo a left breast mastectomy.
The surgery was followed by 12 rounds of chemotherapy, after which Badowski was declared cancer-free.
She has now been living cancer-free for 26 years.
“Everything is great,” Badowski said.
Badowski continues to have her routine appointments each year, with her next scheduled in October.
“Hopefully everything will check out OK,” she said.
Badowski said she kept asking herself “why me?,” but quickly learned that getting cancer can happen to anyone.
She said that talking to others who had similar journeys with the illness helped, as well as having the support of her family.
“When you’re hit with that, it’s a pretty hard blow,” said Badowski about her breast cancer diagnosis.
“It was such a big shock to me. But you have to try to accept it.”
Starr Durham: ‘I know my limits now’
Beating cancer is a great thing for cancer survivors. But Starr Durham said that after beating the illness for 20 years she was left with survivor’s guilt.
After finding a lump on her left side during a self-examination at home in July 1998, Durham soon discovered that the mass was malignant.
She later received several rounds of chemotherapy, which she said was a struggle for her.
“As it turned out, the drug was something a majority of African-American women don’t do well on,” Durham said, noting that a relative had experienced similar issues.
Durham, the mother of three, said she was able to turn to her cousin, Flo, when tough times hit.
Flo was diagnosed with breast cancer that same year.
“We shared everything,” Durham said. “We went through hair loss together, cried together. ... We could turn to one another.”
After seven months of radiation treatment, Durham had won her battle with the disease – while her cousin fought hard, but died a decade ago, Durham said.
“That was very difficult,” she said. “Sometimes, I had survivor’s guilt.”
Today, Durham is still fighting the disease, but this time as an advocate for women.
Still living cancer-free, Durham is active in numerous community events, raising awareness about breast cancer and supporting those who may be struggling with the disease.
“I’m doing well,” Durham said. “Thank goodness no changes. I’m still hanging in there.”
While things are going well for Durham, she said the emotions bubble up from time to time.
“I sit back in my chair sometimes and ask, ‘Why am I still here and there are so many that didn’t make their journey?’ ” she said.
The Franklin woman said she has learned a lot while dealing with the disease and in the years that have followed.
“I’ve learned to put everything into perspective,” she said.
“The conditioning of the mind, knowing that I have to take care of myself first before I can assist anybody else – it’s learning to say ‘no.’
“I know my limits now. I know what I can and can’t do,” Durham said. “That has taken me 18 years, being a survivor, learning the hard way ... that I can’t do it all.
“Learning my limits, that’s how I get through every day.”
Valerie Allen: ‘Everything is going to be good’
A mother of three and grandmother of 13, Valerie Allen was between jobs when she noticed a dark spot under her armpit.
Having no insurance at the time, Allen decided the spot was nothing important and would soon pass.
Following a move back to Johnstown to accept a new job, Allen immediately got health insurance and went for a mammogram.
After a couple of mammograms and an ultrasound, Allen was referred to Dr. Patti Ann Stefanik to have a biopsy performed.
“It was shortly after that that I received a phone call at work, and they told me that I had breast cancer,” Allen said. “I just remember getting up from my desk, and I went to the bathroom and thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this can’t be real because cancer doesn’t happen to me. Cancer happens to other people.’ ”
Allen was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in March 2013.
She eventually went on to make what she called a “tough decision” to move forward with having a bilateral mastectomy.
“It was hard as a woman and a mother to make that decision,” Allen said, “but I had to think to myself that the part of my body that they were getting rid of was harmful to me and was killing me.”
Allen is now living cancer-free and said she is thankful to God for every day that she wakes up.
“Everything is going well,” Allen said. “I haven’t had any problems.”
Follow-up appointments have gone well, Allen said. She continues to see her oncologist every six months.
“Right now, everything is fine,” she said. “No treatments, really nothing, just treatments.
“Praise God nothing is wrong. I’m going to claim that – that nothing is wrong and everything is going to be good. When nothing happens, that’s a good thing.”
Stacey Hrapchak: ‘I had a great support system’
Stacey Hrapchak, a Jackson Township resident, first noticed a lump on Leap Day, Feb 29, 2016.
“I got my yearly mammograms,” Hrapchak said. “I never thought I would get breast cancer, so it was shocking.”
During this tough time in her life, Hrapchak was concerned that her two children, Luke and Nick, would not want to participate in the activities that they love and instead spend hours sitting around thinking about her illness.
Hrapchak made it one of her goals to make sure that her children still got to do the things that brought them happiness.
“We just tried to keep it as normal as possible,” she said.
After a few chemotherapy sessions, Hrapchak noticed that the lump had become smaller.
“And, by my third chemo session, I could feel that the lump was gone,” she said. “There was no more lump.”
Hrapchak said she has a lot to be thankful for since undergoing her last radiation treatment earlier this year.
“It’s going wonderful,” Hrapchak said. “I finished my treatments in March. I finished the treatments and I’m doing great – no cancer.”
Hrapchak said she is back to staying busy, with family activities and work filling her daily schedule.
She credits her family and friends for helping her deal with the illness.
“I had a great support system,” she said. “My family and my friends really helped me out.
“I’m also a religious person, so I prayed a lot and that helped me,” she said. “Stay positive, because with treatment – it’s hard while you’re going through it, but you can get through it.
“There is life after breast cancer.”