Breast Cancer stories: Surviving breast cancer ‘also brings gifts’

Editor’s note:

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this newspaper is sharing several stories throughout the month about people who have survived the disease, as well as those working to improve their odds. Today we profile Shelly Van der Linden and Ellen Wityak.

A conversation with Shelly van der Linden:

Shelly van der Linden beat cancer and was determined to accomplish a lifelong dream of owning her own clothing boutique. She opened up Pretty Please in Del Mar Highlands Town Center and five years later she is getting ready to open her sixth and seventh Pretty Please shops in Carmel Mountain Ranch and Coronado. Earlier this year, she opened Daisy Blue next door to Pretty Please in the Highlands.

In support of breast cancer awareness month in October, Pretty Please customers can receive 20 percent off one regularly priced item and proceeds will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Pretty Please has locations in Carmel Valley, Hillcrest, Carlsbad, Glendale and Scottsdale in Arizona.

When were you diagnosed and what type of diagnosis did you receive?

I was diagnosed in October 2006 with stage 2 breast cancer.

What type of treatment did you receive?

I had a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemo.

Was there one person/thing/routine that served as your rock during this time?

My family served as my rock, my husband and my kids. I went skiing after every chemo, that’s what I had to look forward to.

How did this diagnosis impact your finances? Did you have any insurance struggles?

Yes I did (have insurance struggles) because it was quite a bit out of pocket. I had good insurance but it didn’t cover everything. We were able to work it out after months of paying it off.

Did this diagnosis impact your work?

Yes. I quit working. I was running a chain of show stores and I stopped work during that year. Right after I was done with treatment I opened Pretty Please.

Is there anything about this experience that you want people to know?

You have to be your own doctor, don’t put all your faith in one doctor. Get all of your own medical records so when you go to different specialists you have your own binder full. Don’t rely on one doctor’s opinion to determine the course of your treatment.

Also, you can’t just sit around and feel sick. You do feel sick but you have to have a positive focus and stay busy. Don’t sit around and wallow about how awful you feel, it won’t help you get better.

A conversation with Ellen Wityak:

When were you diagnosed?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2010. It was a 1 cm invasive carcinoma. It was a grade 3 cancer, which means it was very aggressive.

What type of treatment did you receive?

After going to two breast surgeons it was decided that a lumpectomy would be best. I was referred to an oncologist and she decided to do an Onco DX test on the tumor and send it was further pathology. It was originally thought to be Estrogen positive but the orginal pathology was wrong and as it turned out it was triple negative.

While we were waiting for the Onco DX test, I was referred to a genetic counselor and she determined that I should do the testing. It came back that I was BRCA 1 positive. My oncologist decided that since the Onco DX test came back off the chart for reoccurrence and the grade 3 of my tumor that I needed eight rounds of chemo. After the eight rounds of chemo, I decided to have my ovaries and tubes removed.

I then decided to go back for a double mastectomy with the start of reconstruction.

Was there any one person/thing/routine that served as your rock during this time? If so, please describe.

It was been a very long year but I was very fortunate that no lymph nodes where effected. My 15-year-old daughter and my husband were my rocks during this entire process. I also have two support groups that were extremely helpful during this entire process, as well. One support group is for breast cancer patients/survivors and the other is for all different types of cancer patients/survivors.

How did this diagnosis impact your finances? Did you have any insurance struggles?

So far, my insurance has been very good and I have had to pay for deductibles and co-payments, but so far it has been working for us. It is very expensive but thank goodness for this insurance. I feel so lucky to be alive and I feel that I am cancer free at this time. It has been so much to go through but with only being 51 years old, I felt I needed to do the extra surgeries because of being triple negative (meaning there was no medicine I can take to fend off another bout with breast cancer) and the fact that I was BRCA 1 positive and the high rate of reoccurrence that the Onco test determined.

Did this diagnosis impact your work? If so, how?

I had taken a leave from my job as a guidance aide with the Encinitas School District which I have been doing for eight years, the entire time I was under going chemo and went back to work after my double mastectomy/the start of reconstruction. I am still going through the reconstruction process and it will continue until almost December 2011.

Is there anything about this experience you want people to know, that they may not know or is not commonly known?

I am looking forward to getting back to my exercise routine of spinning, weights and yoga. While I was doing chemo, yoga was very beneficial and I highly recommend that and meditation, as well. I also joined a wonderful nutrition group which was super and so helpful as well.