In Sickness And In Health
New Community Mission Manager In Queens Aims to Give Back
Queens, NY - When Phil Stiller proposed to his girlfriend Cathy in 2008, she was elated. The two had met at day camp when they were only 13, although didn’t start dating until they were older. “The proposal was perfect,” she said. “Phil and I love photographs, and he made a video collage of all of the photos we took over the years we were dating. We started planning our wedding and looking ahead.”
But that picture-perfect wedding story was interrupted when they faced "sickness and health" three weeks before they tied the official knot. Cathy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She found a lump while lying in bed one night, but cancer never crossed her mind. “I was scared, I knew it wasn’t right, there should not have been a marble-sized lump in my breast, I knew I needed to see a doctor, but at 27 years old I thought I was too young for cancer,” she said.
The doctor she saw in November thought it was a benign lump and told her not to worry. But she worried. The doctor she saw in December said it was probably just a cyst and to go home. She went home. But due to her gut instinct, the fact that the lump didn’t go away, and her mom’s urging, she finally went to see another surgeon on May 10.
Assuming he would say the same thing as the other doctors, she went to the appointment alone. She was not prepared for the words, ‘Cathy, I’m so sorry, but you have breast cancer.’ She was alone, scared, and getting married in three weeks.
She called her mom, sister, and then Phil who came to the hospital to hear the news. “Because I was alone for a while I was able to deal with my own feelings and emotions, not theirs. And when they arrived I was all cried out and ready to fight.”
And fight she did. As any bride knows, the last three weeks before a wedding are the busiest. The words ‘chemotherapy, mastectomy, and fertility’, were intermingled in every conversation with the words ‘flowers, seating, and reception.’ Cathy went from a morning at the hospital that entailed a bone scan, MRI, PET scan, and CAT scan, and then drove to her dress fitting. She spoke to her florist from the oncologist’s office, and went directly from the hospital for blood work to her rehearsal dinner.
Petrified for the future, Cathy kept her eye on one thing – her wedding day. Only telling a few close friends about her diagnosis, Cathy wanted their guests to enjoy the wedding, not have what she called a ‘pity party’ for her. “I didn’t want the day I’d dreamed about since I was a little girl to be a day surrounded by cancer, although ‘in sickness and in health’ took on a whole new meaning that day.”
After their wedding Cathy and Phil spent a few days in Aruba, instead of their planned honeymoon in Greece, and came home in fighting mode. “I put on my Fight Like a Girl bracelet and shirt and my brave face, and walked into my double mastectomy just 10 days after my wedding.”
With her family and Phil by her side–documenting every moment with his camera–Cathy walked into her first chemotherapy treatment on July 29 at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. That day, she remembers, was especially hard. “I no longer had my wedding to distract me. I looked around the waiting room and was the youngest there by 40 or 50 years. When they put the needle in my arm I broke down. This is when I realized I had cancer. This is when I realized nothing was a given, I had to fight with every ounce of my being. In that chair I became a cancer patient, the needle in my arm was everything I imagined cancer to be.”
She lost her hair, but not her zest for life. Throughout her 98 days of chemotherapy treatments Cathy still worked, ran, and went out with friends. But on November 4, as she walked out of her last treatment with tears streaming down her face, she was overwhelmed with emotion. “That day was the happiest day of my life, she said. More than my wedding, this was my rebirth, my second chance.”
“I know how lucky I am to be here, every day is a gift,” she said. “Cancer made me better, stronger, and the cancer challenge has defined me in a positive way."
Cathy has taken her experience and used it to help others facing cancer. With a master’s degree in health education, Cathy left her previous job in health education and came to work for the American Cancer Society as the Community Mission Manager in Queens, NY. “I have to give back, to help others faced with cancer,” she said. “If I can get one person to a mammogram, or a screening exam, and have their cancer caught early, I’ve done my job. Health education is invaluable, especially in communities like Queens where screening rates are low, and many people are getting screened at late stages when cancer is harder to treat.”
Cathy’s first day with the American Cancer Society was her 28th birthday – as a cancer survivor she is honored to work for the Official Sponsor of Birthdays. “Every celebration is sweeter, every holiday is more special, every birthday is a reason to celebrate,” she now believes.
About the American Cancer Society
The American Cancer Society combines an unyielding passion with nearly a century of experience to save lives and end suffering from cancer. As a global grassroots force of more than three million volunteers, we fight for every birthday threatened by every cancer in every community. We save lives by helping people stay well by preventing cancer or detecting it early; helping people get well by being there for them during and after a cancer diagnosis; by finding cures through investment in groundbreaking discovery; and by fighting back by rallying lawmakers to pass laws to defeat cancer and by rallying communities worldwide to join the fight. As the nation’s largest non-governmental investor in cancer research, contributing more than $3.4 billion, we turn what we know about cancer into what we do. As a result, more than 11 million people in America who have had cancer and countless more who have avoided it will be celebrating birthdays this year. To learn more about us or to get help, call us any time, day or night, at 1-800-227-2345 or visit cancer.org.