Thursday, May 6, 2004

Breast cancer united these neighbors

Friendships evolved into network

By Melinda Zemper
Enquirer contributor

Marty Krzywkowski, (from left) Donna Onken, Sandy Howard and Becky Leighty meet at the West Chester Panera store to talk. All are neighbors and all are recovering from breast cancer.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MICHAEL E. KEATING
WEST CHESTER TWP. - When Sandy Howard was diagnosed with breast cancer last October, her first reactions were panic and fear.

Then she discovered that five other women in her Lakota Hills neighborhood also have breast cancer. What evolved is a network of women who discuss everything imaginable about breast cancer - from possible causes, to the best doctors, to the latest on traditional and alternative treatments.

Robert Indian, chief of chronic disease and behavior epidemiology with the Ohio Department of Health, said that while six women with breast cancer living within a few houses of each other sounds suspicious, the 10-year range in cancer onset for these women indicates unfortunate coincidence.

Three of the four Lakota Hills women interviewed smoked. Their ages at onset ranged from 44 to 55 years old. They have lived in their homes from nine to 26 years.

Howard, 44, of Butterfly Way, thought she was doing everything right. She ate healthily, breast-fed her two children and stayed in shape with Jazzercise. When her annual mammogram showed a pinhole-sized section of white last September, she had one lumpectomy, then another. When her biopsy tested positive for cancer, she had a mastectomy.

"I was floored," Howard said. "But I needed my peace of mind."

Her new friends showed her their scars and reconstructed breasts and had other friends with breast cancer call to reassure her. By the time she had surgery in December, she felt informed and calm. Within six weeks, she was back to modified Jazzercise, and now awaits her second breast reconstruction surgery in August.

Becky Leighty, 68, who lives across the street from Howard, is a retired teacher. She had a double mastectomy in 1991. Now she works at Josephine's Post-Mastectomy Shops in Blue Ash because she found that she feels great when she was helping other women.

Donna Onken, 60, a retired nurse who lives three houses from Howard, was diagnosed in 1994. She had a mastectomy and woke up from anesthesia with a new breast taken from abdominal tissue.

And Marty Krzywkowski, 62, of Chinook Drive, was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago. She discovered a lump in her breast one day and her doctor confirmed what she suspected. She had a mastectomy and complications with chemotherapy. Since chemotherapy ended in 2002, she has felt "very good."

"It's exciting for me to see how many people are beating this," said Howard. "When I was first diagnosed, in the early stages, I thought, 'Why me?' But the more people I talk to, the better I feel."

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