By Phil Ira Schiffman
I am grateful and blessed to have just celebrated my 58th birthday. I’m very happily married to my dedicated and devoted to wife, Miriam. We have three children. Our oldest daughter is married with two kids, our other daughter is married with a son. Our son Avi is single, lives with us and helps us tremendously.
My beloved father of blessed memory was an exemplary role model. After he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his fifties, his doctors kept the cancer at bay with a variety of treatments, procedures and medications. Sadly, and unfortunately, the cancer had a mind of its own. When my dad was 83, the cancer spread to his bones and we lost him. We miss him every single day.
We never really gave much thought to genetics and family medical history until my three older brothers were diagnosed with prostate cancer. Each went through his own personal experience and I prayed for them all. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop. I often wondered, “When will this hit me? And where?” I went about my life being an accountant and staying involved in sports. I thrive on being a family man. I am also an eternal optimist.
Miriam is nothing if not thorough. She attributes this quality to her father who never ever missed a beat. One day in 2011 she noticed “something” on my right breast and immediately exclaimed, “I don’t like that.” My nipple wasn’t inverted or dimpled. There was a firm area that Miriam kept feeling.
She always said she could never ignore her inner voice, instinct, intuition or radar. She relies on it and insisted I see my general practitioner. He was an overly confident person who took a look and said, “Tell your wife it’s nothing you are asymmetrical.” He dismissed my situation. What he should have done in hindsight was at least refer me for another opinion.
Miriam’s instinct guided me to another doctor. We went to the Saint Barnabas Health Care facility in Livingston, New Jersey. We had an appointment with Dr. Addison who performed an ultrasound and her behavior was very awkward and strange after my test. I was sent for a mammogram and additional ultrasound. My wife, being a patient at the Ambulatory Care System in Livingston, secured us an immediate appointment. The red flag came when we were put in a “holding room” where we sat very unnerved and unhinged.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I was taken to the back for testing. Miriam was pacing the halls for two hours. When she was finally called in, they told her they suspected gynecomastia, which could not have been further from the truth. The radiologist looked at everyone in the room like a deer caught in the headlights as if to say, “Oh yeah it’s cancer” unprofessional and sickening.
We went back to Dr. Addison that day with a bouquet of flowers and she was very displaced and out of sorts. The same evening we went to Dr. Michelle O’Shea who is my wife’s doctor. The tone of her voice when she demanded we see her right away was a clear sign something was askew.
Since I had a major heart attack in 2002, had a stent put in my left anterior descending artery AND I have damage at the apex of the heart, special clearance must be given before my blood is drawn. Dr. O’Shea wouldn’t wait. There was a sense of urgency. Again, Miriam was pacing the halls and the staff could not have been any colder and callous keeping her away. My wife was called in and went to hug the doctor when she pushed her away. Dr. O’Shea looked at my wife and said, “Your husband has breast cancer.” I walked into the room and the doctor just blurted out the words, “You have breast cancer.” There was nothing warm and fuzzy about the delivery of the diagnosis. She rambled on about reconstruction then we left numb and paralyzed.
The next morning we drove to Newton Hospital with the slides. We realized then and there that we were calling Dr. Glen Gejerman in Hackensack (who had treated my brothers) for a referral. We thank the good Lord that we wound up with Dr. Stanley Waintraub a brilliant breast oncologist, righteous and our gift from above. He took exemplary stellar care of us and still does. After careful evaluation he sent us to Dr. Mary Jane Warden, a breast surgeon, at the Hackensack University Medical Center. She was the other angel that g-d sent us. Both doctors consulted with each other and concluded that I needed a unilateral mastectomy for invasive ductal carcinoma. The unilateral decision was based on my negative testing for a BRCA mutation.
On June 27, 2011 I had a unilateral mastectomy. My armpad/fatpad contained 22 lymph nodes, six were affected. My diagnosis was 90% estrogen related. I had six sessions of chemotherapy and subsequent radiation. The nurses in the infusion suite at the John Theurer Cancer Center saved my life, in concert and in tandem with the aforementioned doctors and their staff who took extraordinary care of me.
When I came home with the Jackson Pratt drains, Miriam drained them, evaluated the measurements and documented everything. She gave me sponge baths and took care of me as she always does. Our dear friend, a nurse, Rochelle Brodsky administered the Neulasta shots. Our other supportive friends who are family (the Nashofers and Goldsmiths) were there for us 24/7. We were concerned about lymphedema and were instructed that my blood pressure needed to be taken on the left arm. I was instructed to wear the special compression sleeve whenever I fly.
I was not prepared for the side effects from the chemo and radiation. The nausea and general malaise were brutal. The extreme fatigue and overall weakness, the hair loss and the nail loss, the infections and the chronic three hour hiccups from the pre-chemo meds. I take Arimidex, which gives me cravings, and I avoid soy products. The after effects for me also included loss of tone and volume in my skin and I have continued enjoying my love of tomato juice.
I have endured a major heart attack and diverticulitis as well yet I look at life knowing that G-d does not give us what we cannot handle and that sadly many other people have it much worse. My goal is to “pay it forward” and help other friends and family members experiencing this challenge and test. I exercise, take my meds and see my doctors regularly even though my mobility in the area of the mastectomy is still limited at times.
What keeps me going is my wife, my children, my grandchildren and a job I love. We have extreme faith in g-d and are religious people who attend synagogue and observe the laws of Judaism. We have friends who are priceless. They never, ever turn us away. Our cousins Nathan and Tirel Maltz and Fran Malkin always reach out to us and have been supportive throughout my journey.
We perform acts of kindness daily in the hopes that good will result. I attend all the breast cancer races and walks and our son races diligently each time. I have also participated in many Susan G. Komen events (a wonderful organization) such as their walks, fashion shows and luncheons.
It has been five years since my diagnosis of breast cancer, and thank G-d I am feeling great. I never look back. I only look forward and only see the good in everything. I try to pay it forward, namely speaking to other people who are going through or have been through breast cancer. It makes me feel very good to do this. I encourage all men to get checked, this disease does not discriminate. I hope I can continue to be healthy and be a role model and example for others.