SURVIVORS
IMPORTANCE OF BREAST HEALTH ACTIVISM

Breast cancer has touched the lives of so many people in the fashion industry. To underscore the importance of SA's involvement with breast health awareness issues, two women in retail openly and willingly share their personal stories about surviving breast cancer.

SANDI ALPERT
Sandi Alpert's bout with breast cancer began more than five years ago when she discovered a lump in her breast during a self-examination. "Everyone said it must be from stress," recalled Alpert, 62, a fashion coordinator and director of the personal shopper service at Bloomingdale's. "My mother had just died, and I had just taken my father to Florida, so I thought it really could be stress."
Or, as she says now, that's what she wanted to believe. When three of the four doctors she saw agreed that it was nothing, Alpert says she was happy to put the whole thing aside. "But inside, I knew; I just didn't want to face it," she said. So, she didn't return to the doctor six months later as she was instructed, but rather let a year and a half lapse before a friend made her an appointment.
"The doctor knew right there," said Alpert, who has no family history of breast cancer. "He gave me a mammography, but he knew." It was just before Thanksgiving when she was told she would need surgery; the doctor recommended a mastectomy.
"I didn't feel anything when he told me," Alpert remembered. "I felt numb. All I knew was that I had to make a choice -- did I want to live or die. And I knew I wanted to live whatever it would take.
Despite the fear, Alpert rose to the occasion. "What got me through was knowing that I had a lot going for me," she said. "I was married, have children and grandchildren and a job I really enjoy. If I had to go, I felt I had at least had a full life.
"No matter how strong you are, when you hear cancer, you think it's a death sentence," she added. "But I began to feel better when I realized the prognosis was good."
Alpert had 10 hours of surgery, with both the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery to replace the lost breast occurring at the same time. Her recovery took more than three months and was followed by six months of weekly chemotherapy. "The hardest part was that during those first few months, I couldn't walk, I was in constant pain and I was so doped up from the painkillers all the time," she said. "I thought I would never be able to run around and be active again."
Today, Alpert said she is completely back to normal, not only running her department at Bloomingdale's but also helping to promote breast cancer research and breast health awareness. This past spring she singlehandedly produced a large size fashion show and benefit for breast cancer raising $5,000 for the Louis Vinet Research Center at Beth Israel Hospital.
But Alpert's greatest role has been in advising women by sharing her story. "I've been very open about my experience," she said. "I tell women that I'm angry at myself for waiting so long. If I hadn't, it would have just been a little tumor that could have been removed. If women tell me they have lumps, I make sure they get to a doctor right away. The worst thing you can do is wait."RAMONA BIGELOW
Three years ago, during a routine gynecological check-up, Ramona Bigelow's doctor found a lump. "I really believed it was nothing," recalled Bigelow, 48, media manager for J.C. Penney's women's division catalog. "I had no family history of breast cancer, so I figured I was fine."
When the doctor gave her the news, Bigelow said she was shocked. "It's a scary place to be when you're faced with the possibility of death, because that's what it comes down to," she explained. "You go through stages of being angry and afraid."
But Bigelow wouldn't let herself indulge those feelings very long. She quickly went about the business of educating herself on breast cancer so she could make the rightchoice for treatment. In her case, a lumpectomy, which would remove the lump and save the breast, was the option she chose. She also had four months of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of daily radiation. And through it all, she continued to get up and go to work every morning. In fact, she was back at her desk just over a week after the initial surgery. "At times I wanted to collapse, butIjust kept pulling myself forward and saying, 'I can get through this,"' recalled Bigelow, who lost her hair as a result of the chemo. "I have a scar, but that's not too bad compared to the alternative, and hair grows back, you know."
In fact, what kept her attitude so healthy was a very real confrontation with the alternatives. "My step-daughter Denise was dying of breast cancer while I was going through this," said Bigelow. "She passed away a few months after my surgery. She had a mastectomy, and the cancer had matastasized to her liver and lungs. I knew she wasn't going to make it. I looked at what she was going through and it reinforced how lucky I was.
Bigelow has been involved with the Komen Foundation since 1992, and has been the first survivor to cross the finish line during the Plano, TX Race for the Cure for two years in a row. She also works with the American Cancer Society's Reach For Recovery program, visiting women in hospitals just after their breast cancer surgery.

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