When a mutual friend thought that Karen and Sam Smith of Norwalk should meet each other, the couple realized they had their alma mater, Northwestern University in Florida, in common. They both received their college degrees during the same commencement. He received his MBA and she her bachelor's degree.
Their names were listed two pages apart in the commencement bulletin. However, it wasn't until six years into their marriage, in 2007, that they would have something else in common.
They were diagnosed with cancer four months apart. She had breast cancer and he had a cancerous tumor outside his stomach and in the lining of his small intestines.
Smith's first wife, to whom he had been married 36 years had died of colon cancer in 1997. Yet, there was no family history of cancer in either Karen's or Sam's own immediate family. In fact, Karen's parents, now 93 and 94, are still living.
This past Sunday, Sam Smith joined his wife on the "catwalk" as she and 13 other breast cancer survivors modeled fashions from Splash of Pink, a Lilly Pulitzer clothing shop in Westport, during the annual fundraiser for the Breast Cancer Survival Center at the Shore and Country Club in Norwalk.
"I like having her on my arm," said Smith, a reference to his wife and his own participation in the fashion show. "We like to do things together."
Their battling cancer simultaneously may not have been the togetherness that this 71-year-old retired management consultant in the financial industry had in mind. However, it is the Norwalk couple's training as Stephen ministers in the Presbyterian Church in 2007, just before discovering their cancers, that has given the couple their inner strength to deal with their health challenges.
In a telephone interview prior to the fashion show, Karen Smith explained that Stephen ministers are trained to help individuals get through difficulties in their lives.
"It is very intense training," said Karen, 68, and Sam, have a blended family of five children and eight grandchildren. While the couple acknowledges the importance of their ministry training in their ability to cope with their cancers, Karen touts the role that the Breast Cancer Survival Center has had in her ability to get through the tough times since her diagnosis and subsequent mastectomy.
"It's a small wonderful support group. Susan's group provides a lot of support and sharing," added Karen, paying a compliment to Susan Santangelo, BCSC's founder and former director of the Voluntary Action Center in Norwalk, Now, a 12-year breast cancer survivor, Santangelo founded the Breast Cancer Survival center in 1999 after learning there was no organization offering information on post-treatment and support for cancer survivors.
The BCSC is the only direct-service program in Connecticut exclusively devoted to post-treatment issues for survivors and their families, and operates at facilities generously donated by Norwalk Community College and Soleil Toile in Westport.
Santangelo who had discovered a lump in her breast, underwent a lumpectomy, followed by radiation and has been cancer-free for a dozen years.
"I didn't intend for it to be part of my resume," she quipped to an audience of 160 multigenerational luncheon guests, including the grandmother and 6-year-old daughter of former Norwalk resident Melissa Figueroa, 37, one of the center's youngest and most recent cancer survivors.
Figueroa, now a resident of Stratford, and her daughter were among the models whose exuberant parade of the fashions underscored the luncheon's theme, "Celebrate Life." There was something especially beautiful about the fashions at this year's 11th annual event, for the range in fall fashions spoke of an active, joyful lifestyle. The fashions ranged from active sportswear, to casual skirts and sweaters that complemented a variety of day and eveningwear.
The mother and daughter duo offered a confidant posture as Figueroa sported a short white skirt topped with a long sleeved green Palmer sweater complemented with a pink sweater draped over her shoulders. Daughter Mercedes wore a striped pink sweater and pink skirt, displaying a sample of the line of Lilly Pulitzer's children's clothing. Rebecca Boyle and her 12-year-old daughter, Leah, were also among the models.
"Pink and Green! We must be in Connecticut," said Lisa Wexler, WSTC1400/WNLK1350 radio talk show host, who emceed the fashion show.
The breast cancer survivor models' participation in a fashion show also underscored the philosophy that is transporting these women from that devastating, "Why me?" state of mind to a feeling of confidence and "can do" attitude that is bringing success to the survival statistics.
While Santangelo noted that "unfortunately more and more women are being diagnosed with cancer, fortunately they are being diagnosed early."
The Smiths place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having a positive attitude. While both acknowledged how fortunate they have been to have each other as they both battled cancer, the couple states the importance of "faith and courage."
Sam said, "If you have faith and courage, whatever happens, you will make your way through it. You shouldn't let it defeat you. You still have your life ..." He said his ministry has trained him to be more sympathetic and caring toward others and how to be a caregiver.
Karen had a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation because she said, her tumor was "large and aggressive. Sam also addressed his cancer with surgery. Twice a year the couple visit Sloane-Kettering to meet with their doctors and to have blood tests and scans.
"We were so grateful that we could go through this together," she said. We're both very positive people ... We never felt sorry for ourselves."
Both husband and wife said the difficult part in having cancer is the decisions. "You have a lot of choices and a lot is left up to the individual and the family. It takes concentration and research," Karen said.
"Do your homework," Sam said. "There are a lot of options. Pathology is something you don't think about, but the pathologist is an extremely important part."
He said it is important to understand the kind of cancer one has and to get the right treatment. "You need an advocate. We were advocating for each other."
Melissa Figueroa, who is also the mother of an 18-year-old son, briefly described what life has been for her since her cancer was diagnosed late last year. While, she noted that it was back in 2008 that her gynecologist told her to have a mammogram and ultrasound and then referred her to a surgeon, she said the surgeon told her there was nothing to worry about. A year later, she again had a mammogram and ultra sound, which led to the finding of a cancerous tumor in her breast.
She said the news was devastating to her. She was alone when the doctor gave her the news.
The young mother, who now works part-time for the city of Stratford and is studying nursing at Housatonic Community College, described a period of confusion and job pressures that led to her decision not to opt for a lumpectomy but to have a mastectomy and reconstruction this past spring. She is pleased that she made her own decision to change doctors and have the mastectomy, not the lumpectomy. "I'm grateful that I have good medical care," said Figueroa who also cited the importance of the support she receives through the BCSC.
In addition to special events, like the annual fashion show luncheon, the nonprofit survival support organization offers support and discussion groups the second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Women's Center at Norwalk Community College and on the third Tuesday of the month from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Soleil Toile in Westport
Nina Marino, of Rowayton, a social worker, is the clinical director for BCSC. She is also a 14-year cancer survivor. In addition to leading discussions at the group meetings, Marino also schedules guest speakers, including Samantha Heller, a nutritionist, radio host and author of "Get Smart: Samantha Heller's Nutrition Prescription for Boosting Brain Power and Optimizing Total Body Health."
"It's remarkable how much women get out of talking with each other," Marino said. She emphasized the important role that BCSC plays in survivors' lives. She said when the cancer survivor completes the treatment, the family turns its focus to "getting on with their lives" and forget that the survivor needs continuing support. The kids go to school. The husband goes to work. Some sense of normalcy returns to the household.
Santangelo agrees. "People just don't understand. You have to be a survivor to understand. People say the survival piece is the scariest part. There's no support. You're diagnosed. Then you get treatment and then left alone. Every ache or pain you get scares you. You think the cancer is back. The closer you are to your diagnosis, the more you think it is reoccurring. You have no one to share the thought that you're not crazy."
Marino says after treatment survivors feel "alone and vulnerable" and the center can play an important role at this time. In addition to Heller's talk on nutrition, which is very important to survivors' feeling the effects of chemotherapy on the brain, Marino will also invite speakers to talk about meditation and importance of relaxing and getting rid of anxiety. Other talks focus on the importance of exercise and strengthening the bones.
For example, Chris Terenzio, exercise therapist is scheduled to address flexibility and fall prevention during a talk at Soleil Toile on Oct. 26.
As a survivor Marino says she can relate to and understand what other survivors are going through. "I can get there in the trenches," said Marino, who added that in a sense cancer can be a "rebirth" for some survivors. It can be a motivator for doing something that survivors may have put off in the past, but now realize it is time to do it.
Just this week, it was reported that once he completes his cancer treatment, actor Michael Douglas is considering taking his children out of school and traveling the world with his wife actress Catherina Zeta-Jones for a year.
For information about the Breast Cancer Survival Center visit www.breastcancersurvival.org or call 203- 857-7304.Or firstname.lastname@example.org.