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Across New York City and beyond, breast cancer survivors are standing strong and very often winning the fight against a disease that has become far too prevalent, even among women in their 30s.

Thanks to ads and commercials sponsored by organizations like Susan G. Komen, women have become more enlightened about breast cancer and have come to understand the importance of yearly mammograms and regular self-exams.

Alantheia Pena

Survivor Alantheia Pena is using her experience to help other moms battling breast cancer.

The Bronx grandmother’s battle with breast cancer started in 2009, when she was a stay-at-home mom raising three girls. Her shocking diagnosis came after she found out that her two older daughters were pregnant. Suddenly, her life and her family’s became super-challenging.

“But my partner was very supportive, and my entire family helped me with my kids and household chores; my mother cooked meals for me to make sure I was eating healthy,” recalled Pena, who is now in her 50s.

It all started back in 2008 when she told her doctor that her breasts felt sore. Since her mammograms kept coming back negative, she said an entire year went by before she was sent for a sonogram and was told that since many African-American women have dense breasts, mammos don’t always pick up lumps.

That was the case with Pena.

“As soon as the ultrasound technician saw my breast on the screen, I could tell by her expression that something was wrong,” she recalled.

A mass was discovered deep in her left breast, and after five or six surgeries to clean it out, a mastectomy was performed. Then the battle continued when a spot was found in her right breast six months later. After that was cleaned out, she eventually lost part of that breast as well. Then both breasts were reconstructed. She was in the intensive care unit for a grueling month of pain.

Luckily, she never had chemotherapy or radiation, but said she took Tamoxifen, a prescription medication for treating advanced breast cancer in men and women, and early breast cancer in women.

“When I would come home after tests or surgeries, my kids were very clingy. I wouldn’t let them see me in the hospital, hooked up with all that stuff, so we talked on the phone. But my partner was there all the time,” she recalled.

It was a long and painful fight, both physically and emotionally.

“At home, I made sure not to show my girls how I was feeling, so they wouldn’t get upset. I told them I would be fine. I made sure that I got all the support I needed outside, so my home life was peaceful, not stressful. I prayed a lot and meditated.”

Despite another potentially devastating setback this September — Pena said she had just learned that a spot came up on a mammo in what was left of her right breast — the brave survivor still manages to hold on to hope. During our interview, her voice sounded calm and optimistic when she talked about her next six-month exam in February, and possibly needing another biopsy.

She knows that her daughters must get tested soon.

Despite her battle with breast cancer, Pena is a striking and healthy-looking African-American woman. You can see strength and compassion for others in her beautiful gray eyes.

And she has become an advocate for breast cancer awareness, helping other women who are battling the illness, while raising families and dealing with extreme hardship.

In 2012, the survivor made a TV commercial for Susan G. Komen and she was interviewed about her experience in a special that aired on CBS: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/komen-greater-nyc-race-for-the-cure.

Her image has appeared numerous times on Susan G. Komen’s campaign ads, gracing the pages of several magazines, including Ebony, Essence, Country Cooking, Simplicity, and Cosmopolitan — and in 2014 she appeared on a huge Susan G. Komen poster at LaGuardia Airport.

“Other women show their cleavage, I show my scar,” says Pena, who loves to shop at Victoria’s Secret. “It shows that I fought for my life; it’s my battle scar.”

The scar reminds her and others that you can be strong, fight the good fight, and win!

Caryn Fernandez

A shocking Stage III breast cancer diagnosis turned a 40-something mother-of-two’s life upside down. On that bitter cold afternoon in February 2011, an elderly woman who sat beside Caryn Fernandez at the treatment center seemed to feel her pain. Looking back, the three-year cancer survivor says she still recalls the stranger’s soothing words and calm demeanor.

“If you believe in angels among us, that lady may have been one,” she said.

Fernandez’s battle started with a funny-feeling, pea-sized lump in her left breast that lit up like a Christmas light during a sonogram that followed a suspicious mammogram.

“I remember thinking: It was hard to believe how a little thing like that could change everything,” said Fernandez. But it did, and a biopsy confirmed the worst. The aspiring artist knew she was facing the biggest challenge of her life and still recalls how the fear turned into rage, as she heard a voice in her head screaming, “Why me?”

She remembers how the dreary forecast that winter matched her mood. And seemingly endless days marked by gray skies made her feel hopeless and sad. She said she had a feeling of general malaise that worsened as she endured numerous chemotherapy treatments that made her feel weak and nauseous.

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake that gloom-and-doom feeling.

“I was walking around like a zombie with a wrenching emotional ache in the pit of my stomach. But one day, I decided I’d had enough; the negativity had to stop! Hiding under the covers wasn’t doing me any good.”

Looking back, Fernandez remembers that just 24 hours after her diagnosis, her perspective about life made an 180-degree turn. Things that she had perceived as terrible before she got sick no longer carried much weight in light of her new situation. And her marriage grew stronger. She and her husband Manny forgot about all the stuff they had bickered about just days before.

“We refer to that time as our former lives,” she said. “Suddenly, all the pettiness didn’t matter anymore. I had to focus on healing and getting better. I was a mess, but Manny was my rock.”

And they both learned how to pick their battles with the kids.

Their son Luke (then 12) and daughter Jasmine (then 7) soon realized that their usually upbeat and energetic mom wasn’t the mommy they used to know.

“I was a shell of my former self. For a while, both kids started to act out in negative ways, because they couldn’t deal with their feelings of insecurity and fear, but the more we reassured them and conveyed optimism, the more they felt comforted,” Fernandez said.

Fast forward to 2015. As Fernandez’s family and friends celebrate her wellness, the artist, activist, and lover of all things vintage says she wants to remind everyone that “the Big C” shouldn’t define who you are.

Her story, like the stories of so many other survivors, is one of hope, and she sees her desire to share it as a personal tribute to her brave sisters everywhere. Now that she has embraced her experience with strength and positivity, Fernandez says she sees life in a whole new way. Her daily mantra?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. And even though it sounds corny, I say ‘thank you’ to the universe when I wake up each morning.”

She believes that being grateful for the good in your life, despite the harsh realities, profoundly changes your outlook and energy. That, and a relaxing yoga routine followed by 20 minutes of meditation works wonders, she insists.

“Even when you’re in pain and feeling nauseous and yucky, you’ve gotta stay focused and push past all that crap!”

Pena’s and Fernandez’s stories are echoed by so many other breast cancer survivors here in the city, many of whom take part in the Susan G. Komen Greater New York City Race for the Cure each year. Their collective wish? That they can look back and say: “The 25th Race for the Cure (held in Central Park on Sept. 13) was the last one ever, because a much-needed cure has finally been discovered.”

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance journalist and mother of two sons.

Be proactive

Trust your gut instinct, if you suspect that something doesn’t feel or look right (like a strange discharge or even some dimpling of the skin), talk to your doctor. Become your own health advocate and get that suspicious lump checked out as soon as possible. Early detection is key to surviving breast cancer!

You can learn about the four steps to breast cancer awareness here: www.komennyc.org/site/PageServer?pagename=breasthealth_awareness.

Other ways to heal

Medical advice and treatment from your doctor should always be followed, but there are plenty of other ways in which you can help yourself heal.

Keep your family and friends close and your pets even closer. Dogs and cats have extrasensory perception — they can sense when you’re not feeling well and may help speed up your healing journey.

Rest. Meditate, do yoga, and keep breathing when you’re stressed out, sad, or feeling fearful.

Change your diet. Eliminate sugar, which feeds cancer cells, and “the whites” — white bread, white rice, etc. Get a Nutribullet.

Try a holistic route. Ask your doctor about keeping your pH levels at alkaline, check out other holistic options, but stick with your doctor’s treatment plan.

Start a journal or blog. Putting your thoughts and feelings on paper or a screen can help you sort through your emotions.

Try self-visualization. Close your eyes and imagine each cancer cell blowing up … kabloom!

Repeat a mantra — and believe it. Think and say, “I’m healthy!” every day.

Remember to live in the moment. Enjoy the little things. Nobody knows what the future will bring.

Get plenty of hugs. Did you know that hugging raises dopamine levels in your brain?

Repeat every day.

Did you know?

Tough survivor Caryn Fernandez says she believes strongly in a surprising miracle baking soda protocol she came across on the internet, which has become popular in recent years. She swears it helped eliminate whatever cancer cells were lingering in her body. Read author Vernon Johnston’s blog “My Dance With Cancer” http://phkillscancer.com/protocol.

Here’s another suggestion: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, then take more lemons and squeeze the juice over salads, into water, on fish, etc. and make sure you include the zest. Research has shown that lemons may help prevent certain cancers. And don’t forget your vitamin D3.

Updated 4:57 pm, July 9, 2018
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