by Jeanne Muchnick
Nine months. That's how long Dorit Shapiro had had with her just-adopted daughter, Leah (then 10 and a half months old), when she discovered she had breast cancer. And not just any cancer, but stage IV metastatic breast cancer: one of the most dire diagnoses you can get. "We had just celebrated probably one of the happiest days in our family's lives by completing a family and having two daughters (oldest daughter, Mara was then nearly five)," says the 38-year-old Pennsylvania resident, "and then months later we were facing a road of uncertainty and fear and realizing that I not only had breast cancer, but that my prognosis was metastatic breast cancer and that the statistics were against me."
But instead of wallowing in self-despair, this former freelance medical writer took it upon herself to get involved. "My doctors were not being aggressive with my treatments. Before they realized it spread, they recommended an aggressive course that included double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and reconstructive surgery, but once they found that it spread they said we would balance quality of life with keeping the cancer from progressing. The doctors told me that they could not cure me, but could only manage my condition similar to the way you would treat a chronic illness."
At first, Dorit joined a few online groups, but as a young woman raising children, she felt alienated. "It just seemed like my concerns were different than some of the other women who seemed to be older, or had had a recurrence, where for me, this was my first experience with breast cancer. My diagnosis came as a complete shock. I had been leading what I thought was a pretty healthy lifestyle. There was no history of any cancer in my family, and I had no known risk factors." She felt just as much of an outsider when she joined area support groups where "everyone was going around the room saying 'Thank God, my breast cancer never spread,' or 'I don't know how I'll handle more aggressive treatments' but for me, it had spread, and I was in the midst of all these difficult treatments, and my situation was more serious, so I couldn't really relate to them."
And that's when she discovered the popular online stationery website Design her Gals, Dorit learned that the company donated a portion of its sales to the Gal to Gal Foundation, which assists patients and families battling stage IV breast cancer. She instantly connected with the site's founder Jeanne Fitzmaurice and after sending a letter to her about featuring a "Beat Cancer" t-shirt on the site, Dorit was surprised to find out that her request was granted. Last year, Dorit discovered the Gal to Gal virtual walk where women create their own likeness and walk in an effort to support women with stage IV breast cancer, and she took it upon herself to write a letter to the editor in her hometown newspaper. The letter was published, the local CBS affiliate reached out to her, and that's when she suddenly went from in-her-pajamas-observer "behind the scenes" who spent her "good" moments tapping away on her laptop, to an active supporter of the organization. "I felt like it was so important to get the message out to women like me with stage IV: that there are options, whether it's resources or support material." Even, if it's just a way to explain to your children why mommy looks different, is tired all the time, has lost her hair, and spends so much time at the doctor's office.
This active role as now President of the Gal to Gal Foundation has helped her immensely as she's finally connected with other women like her -- and more importantly, been able to connect women who previously like her, felt alone and a bit lost. And despite four treatment failures, four different chemo regimens, one month of radiation therapy, and hormone therapy, she's still fighting and "hoping" this treatment will work - with her husband and two daughters beside her. "Mara loves dressing the gals, and having her see other 'women' on the computer helps her better understand what I'm going through and that it's not just her mom who is battling this disease. Leah, on the other hand, is still young and this has really been her life since Day One." All of which makes Dorit go "overboard" for their birthday parties "because I never know if it's going to be the last birthday I'll share with them." She and her husband also recently took a cruise without the girls, just the two of them -- something they never did before her diagnosis. "I'm just trying to make the most of every day," she says, "and really work hard to realize that a birthday or a vacation doesn't have to always be a 'special moment,' because if we make each day special, they're just as important."
Sage wisdom for someone who admits "we're getting to the point where we're starting to run out of options." As for how cancer has changed her (the question everyone wants to know but is afraid to ask): she says that after she got over the shock of dying, she started to look at breast cancer as "something that really opened my eyes to a lot of different things; things I never would have considered about my life, like in terms of investigating whatever I could do to help myself. I've embraced ideas and treatments I never thought I would support or pursue and I feel that I've opened my mind and my heart to consider different possibilities."
In her life before cancer, she says she was often angry about things. "I was very temperamental. It took facing up my illness and my mortality for me to re-evaluate my life and realize that there were things I wanted to change, and by changing them, I feel like I have achieved peace."
"I'm grateful to my cancer for leading me down a path that I feel is better than where I was before. So it hasn't been all negative because it's really forced me to evaluate a lot of different things in my life. I used to say 'I just want my life back' but I don't want the life I had before back, I just want Life. I'm really happy with the person that I've become and the things that I've changed. I know that none of that would have happened without my diagnosis. I just make the best of every day and I always believe that there will be a tomorrow. I just keep going. I think that that's all anyone can expect. I just have to keep going."