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TV host hopes cancer battle inspires viewers to be tested

The absence of Linda Pellegrino was temporary -- that's what viewers of "AM/Buffalo" were told for weeks. The perky co-host was "under the weather," co-host Jon Summers explained. She would be back on WKBW-TV's morning magazine show soon.

When Pellegrino returned to the air last week after being gone since the end of January, she revealed to her viewers that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, that she had undergone a double mastectomy and that she still faces a round of chemotherapy in April. She was joined by two of the physicians treating her: breast cancer surgeon Dr. Ronald Bauer and cosmetic surgeon Dr. David Rigan.

Pellegrino's decision to go public with her illness reflects a trend among news personalities, including Katie Couric, Al Roker and Roger Ebert, who all have shared their personal health struggles to help raise medical awareness.

"I realized I should just come back and tell the truth," Pellegrino said. "If I was going to have something like this, I might as well own it. You can get this, you know? And you can survive this. I've already heard from a lot of women who were 5-, 10- and 20-year survivors."

Dressed in bright turquoise, Pellegrino sat in a Delaware Avenue coffee shop one recent afternoon sipping coffee and talking about breast cancer. Her upbeat nature, combined with an engaging moxie, has charted her through a career that started in radio after she graduated from Brockport State College in 1977.

"I've yet to get chemo, and I'm not sure how that will play out, because I'm going to have the kind where you lose your hair," she said. "They told me, and that freaks me out a little bit, but I've always had creative hairdos. I've already told the audience that we're going to walk through this together."

Ten years ago, when Katie Couric, then the host of NBC's "Today" show, televised her colonoscopy after losing her husband to colon cancer, it spurred a 20 percent increase in the number of people who underwent the cancer-detection procedure, according to the American Cancer Society.

Pellegrino, too, hopes her story will spur others to obtain annual mammograms, like the one she had on Dec. 7, 2010, that revealed her cancer.

"A lot of women don't realize the importance of mammograms," said Bauer, who works through Breast Care Western New York in Amherst. "She had cancers in both breasts. The one lump she could feel in her right breast, but the other lump would still be there, the other cancer in the opposite breast, if she hadn't gone for her mammogram."

Pellegrino recalled the barrage of tests that followed.

"CT scans, biopsies -- it went on and on," narrowing it down in some areas and finding more cancer in others, she said. "They found I had an invasive carcinoma on the right side, and an invasive lobular cancer on the left -- two different kinds and no family history. Weird."

Pellegrino tossed out terms with a knowledge augmented by online research. She wanted to learn as much as she could about the disease she had, so she visited the American Cancer Society website frequently.

"I read up on all the terms, and what the doctors were talking about. It's all there. I wanted to know what the recovery was like for a mastectomy, [and] the side effects."

Pellegrino, 55, opted for the double mastectomy.

"I did not want to come back in five years with more lumps," she said. "I said to my doctor: 'If I were your wife, what would you recommend?' A lot of women have lumpectomies and they have to go back. I don't have to do mammograms anymore. There's nothing to look at. I have implants."

According to Bauer: "More and more women are selecting the mastectomies, and probably in the 16, 17 years I've been doing this, more women than ever have been selecting the prophylactic mastectomy [removal of the uninvolved breast]. .

"Linda could have just as easily had bilateral lumpectomies," Bauer added. "It's just kind of a personal decision, almost like reconstruction. Here she was, a lady in her 50s with cancer in both breasts. Is something going on with her that's causing this? You just never know."

The double mastectomy and the placement of implants were accomplished during the same four-hour surgery, said Bauer. The procedure was performed Feb. 1 at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

When Pellegrino was informed she had breast cancer, about two weeks after the initial mammogram, the first person she told was her husband of 30 years, Robert Stotz, who works for Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

The second person she broke the news to was WKBW-TV president and general manager Bill Ransom, her boss at Channel 7. She and her husband told their 19-year-old son when he was home for spring break from the University of Pittsburgh. Her parents, both in their 80s and living in New Jersey, were given the news in person by Pellegrino's sister.

"There have been moments through my recuperation that it's been very painful," Pellegrino said.

Pellegrino started in television on WUTV Channel 29 hosting "8 O'Clock Movie." She also worked on WKBW-AM 1520 radio, and started working on Channel 7 as a weekend weather person.

"They wanted a woman who could ad-lib," she recalled. "And they had such good luck with Clip Smith and Danny Neaverth. I worked at KB radio and TV at the same time. Then I learned how to be a features reporter, and I loved that. I was on the air for a few years before ['AM/Buffalo'] made the change from Cindy Abbott to me."

That was in 1990, and in the two decades since, Pellegrino said she has presented hundreds of medical stories.

"I've seen real problems," she said. "We have women on chemo who watch, and men on dialysis. I've had people on my set who were dying of a disease, and still had things to impart to other people."

Next month, Pellegrino will start a round of treatment that includes Tamoxifen, an oral medication taken daily for five years that inhibits cancer recurrence by 50 percent, according to Bauer. She also will begin one round of chemotherapy. Through it all, she says, she will stay positive.

"You don't stay on TV for 20 years without being a fighter," she said. "I haven't cried once over this. I cried over my friend [former Buffalo Sabre] Rick Martin. And I don't pray for myself either. I pray for other people who are sicker than me."

Viewers who regularly watch Pellegrino will notice she has a new way of signing off the show.

"I'm going to end every show by urging women to go get their testing," Pellegrino said. "You can do a lot if you meet medical science halfway."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com