Know your body, advocate for yourself when something feels wrong, find a support system.
Two sisters-in-law who have forged an even stronger bond as sisters-in-survival want to share that message with all women.
The two Young Israel members, Linda and Lucia Schnitzer, do that by speaking to women’s groups (especially encouraging Orthodox women to realize self-exams are not in violation of the commandment for modesty). Linda also sings at breast cancer events (including the Komen Walk and the annual Phoenix Mercury “Rock the Pink” annual breast health awareness game). Lucia shares healthy recipes as a columnist for Arizona Jewish Life and on Sonoran Living on TV and is always willing to speak with women who visit Luci’s Healthy Marketplace, which she and her husband, Ken, opened as a tribute to Lucia’s brave battle with cancer (see story at azjewishlife.com/1-story-2-lives-3-acts).
Linda and Lucia each were nursing an infant (Linda’s fourth and Lucia’s first) when they realized something wasn’t right.
Linda was 35 when her 13-month-old son refused to nurse from her right breast. When she noticed a lump, she called her OB/GYN Dr. Steven Wininger. When Dr. Wininger felt three lumps, he immediately sent her for a mammogram. The technician didn’t want to do a mammogram since she was nursing, but Linda refused to leave. The clinic called Dr. Wininger, who insisted on a scan. An ultrasound revealed six lumps, but the clinic said they appeared to be lactating adenoma and there was no need to worry. However, Dr. Wininger had already scheduled an appointment with a breast surgeon and told Linda to keep it.
The surgeon suggested that since her child Akiva was more than a year old, Linda should wean him and return in four weeks. Time stretched to nearly two months before she kept that appointment, and Linda says as soon as the surgeon felt the lumps “she flew out of the office” and immediately scheduled a biopsy. The radiologist doing the biopsy said the smooth tumors didn’t resemble cancer, which tends to “spider out.” When her breast surgeon called the next day and said the six tumors totaling 6.2 cm were cancer, fear set in. A series of scans the next day showed the tumors had not spread.
On Dec. 20, 2005, Linda had a mastectomy, which did find cancer in two lymph nodes, so after recovering from the surgery she began chemotherapy. Testing showed her cancer was triple positive (estrogen, progesterone and HER2 positive), so in addition to a course of eight rounds of chemo every two weeks, Linda had to receive Herceptin every week for a year.
That extended chemo regime meant that she was still getting chemo when Lucia began her cancer journey five and half months after Linda’s began. People who saw the two women in chemo together dubbed them “sister survivors.”
At age 34, Lucia was worried about the pain she felt when her first child, Aviva, was nursing. Linda told her that was not normal and encouraged her to get it checked. “When you feel something is not right, you need to follow up,” Linda says.
Lucia went to the same OB/GYN as her sister-in-law, and Dr. Wininger wasn’t taking any chances. Once again, technicians were hesitant to do a mammogram on a nursing mother, but her husband Ken and Dr. Wininger were not taking no for an answer.
Unlike Linda’s slow-growing cancer, Lucia’s was very aggressive. Following surgery, she too started chemo, but since her cancer was triple negative, she did not need the extended course as did Linda.
Both women credit the support of their family, their religious community and each other for getting through the ordeal.
A year before her diagnosis, Linda and her husband, David, moved into a neighborhood where many members of Congregation Young Israel live. They moved to provide support to David’s brother, Cary, and his wife, Raquel, who were raising three sons – one with cerebral palsy and one with autism.
Instead it was Raquel who rallied the community around Linda, who says the religious community in central Phoenix is amazing about helping those with any need.
“Raquel sep up a care calendar,” says Linda. “People brought dinner every night when I was on chemo. They got the kids to school. Raquel coordinated the whole thing.”
Lucia found the same support when she was diagnosed, but she had the added advantage of Linda’s support.
“She became like a blood sister because we share something,” says Lucia. “We shared breast cancer. We were both mothers with little children. We had each other to depend on.”
Lucia recognizes not everyone has the support of a family and community, so Luci’s holds an annual fundraiser for Singleton Moms, which helps single mothers with cancer. The local foundation helps women with housecleaning, shopping and other support.
“If something tragic happens for whatever reason, it’s important to embrace it,” say Lucia. “From this came our business, and I discovered strengths unknown to me.”
As the mother of four young children (Aviva, 9, Benzi, 6, Gavi, 4, and Yasi, 2), Lucia doesn’t have a lot of time to speak to groups, but she says she has an open door policy at Luci’s, and frequently talks to women about their concerns and encourages them to be aware of anything that doesn’t feel right.
She recently had a scare when bone pain sent her rushing to the doctor. Scans revealed no cancer, but when she wasn’t satisfied all was well, she asked for blood tests. The tests revealed a vitamin D deficiency – easy to cure once diagnosed.
Early diagnosis is especially important for cancer. Linda says neither she nor Lucia has a family history of cancer and neither has a BRCA mutation. So if they had not discovered their own cancer, things likely would have been much worse.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years, most of them young,” says Linda. Since breast cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage in young women, it is more often fatal. “It is so curable if it’s caught early enough.”
Therefore, Linda encourages women to listen to their bodies and get a mammogram. At her talks she always carries cards for free mammograms and says it is easy for women without insurance to find a free mammogram. “There isn’t any excuse,” she says.
In the wake of her cancer, Linda discovered a talent she had long wanted to explore. When her husband asked her which “coulda, woulda, shoulda” she wished she had pursued, she said singing. So David bought voice lessons for Linda for her 40th birthday. With voice coaching, she recorded an album and began to sing the national anthem at sporting events.
This year on Oct. 11 she will sing at the Komen Race for the Cure for the second year. She will perform her original songs, all of which have deeply personal messages – some to her children (Elianna, 21, Sarah, 19, Laila, 13, and Akiva, 11) and some to her husband about the struggles they’ve shared.
Though she is shomer Shabbat and keeps strictly kosher, she said she does sing in front of men and now that she finally has hair, she has stopped wearing wigs.
As members of an Orthodox community for more than 20 years, she says she does what works.
The families stay close celebrating Shabbat and holidays together in each other’s homes.
And the sister survivors continue their special bond.