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Finding strength in numbers

None of the women seated at the banquet table in a Cheektowaga restaurant recently is the wife of a U.S. presidential candidate. But they have all walked a mile in the shoes of one.

Like Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential contender and former Sen. John Edwards, they all have metastatic breast cancer and are trying to make the best of it.

Through the auspices of Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Breast Resources Centers and the Center for Hospice & Palliative Care's Life Transitions Center, these women have been meeting monthly since October to dine, imbibe, share information -- and a few tears and laughter -- and support each other through their common travail.

After it was announced recently that Elizabeth Edwards had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer, the women decided to try to support her, too, by each sending her a personal message of hope and encouragement.
"I hope [Elizabeth Edwards] finds the courage and the faith to push on," said Christy Hay of Cheektowaga.
The 36-year-old mother of a 6-year-old son was diagnosed in 2002 with cancer in both breasts. She has had a double mastectomy, numerous reconstructions and numerous rounds of chemotherapy. Now she's on a new medication.
"I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope it works. I'm really good with the way I feel on it," Hay said.

She also knows the power of support and encouragement through her bonding with other women in the group.
"It took four years for me to come to a support group meeting just because I was hung up on the whole 'I don't want to . . . always be complaining, it's a downer.' I wanted to be positive, and that's all I found in this group. We laugh a lot," said Hay.

Beverly Holcomb, 56, of Eden, has been dealing with cancer for five years.

"I was diagnosed as stage IV right from day one and, as you go along, sometimes things get a little tougher. I want to talk with people who are in the same place I am," said Holcomb.
Holcomb has been apprised of different treatments that are available, including the use of alternative medicines, by talking to other women who are living with breast cancer.
"I just had an infusion today. I'm doing vitamin C infusions," Holcomb said at the gathering.
Clearly intrigued and happy for her, Hay responded: "Oh! How do you feel?"
"I feel no different yet, but the difference, I'm told, should come in about 10 weeks," Holcomb replied. "And then, we'll see how it goes after that. I'm hoping it makes a difference."

"I'm sure it will," said Hay.

That type of support has been an invaluable asset for Holcomb, Hay and the other women who, like Elizabeth Edwards, are dealing with metastatic cancer -- or one that has started to spread to their internal organs -- said Deborah Pettibone, a Roswell Park spokeswoman who also attends and helps organize activities at the meetings.

"This is a cancer that typically can't be cured, so these women . . . if you look around, they look quite healthy, they go to work, they do their family thing. They are living," Pettibone said. "But at the same time, they have active cancer in their body, and some of them are getting regular treatments, and it can be very stressful."

Although some of the women are wearing baseball caps or wigs to hide the loss of their hair -- and eyebrows, in some cases -- as a result of the effects of chemotherapy, they remain upbeat and as active as the illness will allow.

"The initial diagnosis is such that you don't know where to go," said Debbie Clottelter of Buffalo. "You go to the Internet, and there's too much information. . . . It's depressing."

Clottelter's adult daughter, April Ersing, who often accompanies her mom to the meetings added, "You don't know what's valid and what's not."

Clottelter owned a coffee house in South Buffalo, which she opened in celebration of being diagnosed as cancer-free in July 2005. She was rediagnosed with stage IV cancer in May 2006. Clottelter was unsure what she planned to say in her private note to Elizabeth Edwards, but she is appreciative of Edwards' candor.

"I think with the national attention on her, it brings attention to the disease and initial awareness," said Clottelter.

"And, maybe, additional funding," she said with a laugh.

Breast cancer has become an epidemic, said Clottelter, and she sees herself as a source of encouragement to other women struggling through treatments for the disease.

"I feel like I'm serving a purpose, and I'm not shy about the fact that this is what I have," she said. "I think the epidemic of breast cancer is caused by environmental issues: what we eat, what we use, what we breathe. I want to make people aware of what we're ingesting."
In addition to their monthly meetings, many of the women and their families are planning to attend a retreat in the summer. Joanne Janicki, coordinator of the Western New York Breast Resource Centers, said it will give many of them a chance to bond even more and feel "normal" again.
"Some of them, they don't have hair, they're wearing wigs, they're tired. They have problems with their hands, their feet and so many things. So going to a weekend thing where you want to yank that wig off and go swimming, nobody's going to bat an eyelash, and [they] aren't going to feel uncomfortable, because everybody who's there understands what you're going through, because they're going through the same thing," Janicki said.
Who knows? Maybe they will consider inviting Elizabeth Edwards to join them. For now, however, the women just want her to know they understand.
"I'm the last person to give advice, but I deal with my cancer one day at a time," said Hay. "I'm not going to dwell on what could happen. . . . I cross the bridge when I need to cross it."

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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