After Rebecca Florio lost a sister to breast cancer nearly two decades ago, she learned that she doesn’t appear to have a genetic predisposition to the disease. That didn’t mean she was invincible, however, so she continued to get an annual mammogram.
When she was diagnosed last November, she was in the early stage.
“It was surreal, really quite a shock – and rocked my world,” said Florio, 56, of Lockport, who has recovered well from a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery late last year.
She took the more aggressive surgical step with her sister, Mary Marvin, in mind.
Marvin was diagnosed in the late stage and endured chemotherapy, radiation and recurrence during her four-year cancer fight, which ended in 1998. She "went through hell," Florio said. "That four years wasn't great in terms of quality of life but every day she had a smile on her face. To watch her, she was Superwoman."
Before she died, Marvin went to work as cancer control director with the regional American Cancer Society chapter and started what was to become the first Mary’s Wig Room at the Amherst headquarters. Today, there are 15 Mary’s rooms in New York State and two in New Jersey, which provide a free wig – as well as a turban, hat or other head covering – for any adult female cancer patient facing hair loss from treatment.
Florio, and her husband Jack, fueled that expansion with a Mother’s Day Breast Cancer Canal Walk started by Marvin that has raised more than $500,000 since it began in 1996.
Relay for Life of Lockport will recognize that effort from 4 to midnight Saturday, June 17, when Florio is recognized as honorary cancer survivor for the event, at Emmet Belknap Intermediate School, 491 High St. Learn more at relayforlife.org/lockportny.
Florio said her sister would be "over-the-top proud" of how Mary's rooms have grown. Marvin had dark brunette hair below her waist for most of her life and hated losing it during her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"That's why she came up with this," Florio said. "Seeing her go through that and feeling what she was feeling losing her hair, she realized something had to be done about that. Insurance does not cover wigs."
A plaque with a picture of Marvin and her story adorns each Mary's Room, which tend to be set up in American Cancer Society Hope Lodge residences or, as in the case of Amherst at 101 John James Audubon Parkway, a chapter headquarters building.
Because it falls so closely to the Mother's Day walk, Florio hasn't been a regular at the Lockport Relay for Life. She's stopped by a few times over the years but this year aims to stay for most or all of the duration. She expects to see many familiar faces, including volunteers from the Mother's Day walk and customers who frequent Micro Graphics, the printing and sign company she and her husband own in their native Lockport.
"I’ll lead the survivors walk and tell my story," she said, "and hopefully one person will go get their mammogram, or maybe more than one."
Florio will remember her sister, so many others who have waged their own battles with cancer, and her best friend, Jennifer Wienke, who traveled from Florida to help her recover during the two weeks after surgery.
"What my journey really opened my eyes to after the surgery – when I went home and was in bed for a week – were the people who came over and brought dinner and gave us gift certificates for food were people I never would have thought of…," she said. "I learned that if this happens to somebody I know, whether it's a close friend or maybe an acquaintance, I am going to take that extra step to see if I can help them out in any way."
What would Florio say to someone who’s hesitant to get a mammogram?
"I’ve always been an advocate of early detection and now I’m the poster child," she said. "If you get it early, you can have surgery and still be OK, and go on with your life."
Also this weekend:
The Elma Relay for Life will take place from 5 p.m. to midnight Friday, June 16, on the Iroquois Central School District campus, 2111 Girdle Road, Elma. As is the case with the Lockport Relay for Life the next day, the public is welcome to attend.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon