It’s never to late to go get a mammogram

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we share the inspiring stories of breast cancer survivors here in the Tuesday Life section, contributed by Premier Health.

Chaya Vidal of Englewood had her first mammogram two years ago, at 72. So she may seem an unlikely public champion of the test.

But she’d learned a valuable lesson and felt compelled to share it in her synagogue’s bulletin.

“There’s never been a history of cancer in my family, and I thought I was probably too old,” she said.

Yet, there she was with an unexplained bruise. She asked her primary care doctor, Jason Schatzel, M.D., to order a mammogram.

The evening after her mammogram on Nov. 24, 2015, Dr. Schatzel called.

“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see from the technician’s face that it was a bad, bad mammogram on both breasts,” she explained. It was Stage IIIC cancer.

Vidal, now retired from synagogue administration, was teaching a Hebrew lesson when the call came. With her student in the room, she said, “There was no way I could appear worried or nervous. I just acted like I was listening to a casual report from a doctor.”

But Dr. Schatzel was ordering biopsies of both of Vidal’s breasts, immediately.

The next day, the youngest of her three children, Chava, drove in from Cincinnati for Thanksgiving.

“When I said I needed to talk, I must have said it in a very serious tone, because she replied, ‘Why? Are you dying?’ I said I hoped not. I explained that I probably had cancer. We both laughed, because it was such a bizarre thing for her to say, and it broke the tension.”

Vidal added, “I also told her, ‘The last time I had an ultrasound was to find out I was pregnant with you.’ She said, ‘Mom, I was with you then, and I’m with you now.’”

Chava has been with her mother at every doctor’s visit and chemotherapy treatment since the surgical removal of both her breasts.

Two surgeons, Thomas Heck, M.D., and Michelle DeGroat, M.D., conducted the mastectomies simultaneously “to minimize the time I was under anesthesia, because of my age,” Vidal explained. “They were absolutely outstanding.”

In her room after surgery, cheerleading pom-poms covered nearly every surface. Eighty of them. With nurses’ permission, Chava had placed them there, each carrying encouragement from family and friends.

Chava’s special touches graced her mother’s entire journey: a gratitude journal, scrapbooks of cards and letters, a homemade fleece blanket and pillows for chemotherapy, and plenty of crossword puzzles and hard candy.

Vidal had a great concern lifted when she tested negative for an inherited BRCA gene mutation that would have increased her children’s risk for cancer. As a descendant of eastern European Jews, Vidal is at heightened risk of carrying the mutated gene.

“That was the best piece of news during that time,” she said. “It was bad enough being ill, but then finding out that I could possibly pass cancer on to my children was the worst time of my life.”

Vidal’s initial chemotherapy, starting in February 2016, brought debilitating side effects. But her oncologist worked with her to find a milder alternative.

Chemotherapy ended July 25, 2016, and Vidal’s cancer is in remission. For at least five years she’ll take a daily anti-hormone pill. “But the fact that I’m alive and able to do most of the things I love again is great,” Vidal said.

Those include:

• Walking her dog, Kip, adopted a few months before her diagnosis. During treatment, “Even walking a block became an effort.”

• Walking the track and water aerobics at the YMCA.

• Writing and directing spoofs of musicals for her synagogue’s Purim celebrations.

• Teaching adult Hebrew classes.

Vidal’s cancer journey transformed Chava’s life, too.

Like her mom, Chava serves as a synagogue program director. But a year ago, after hours in hospitals and doctors’ offices, she told her mom, “I think I’d like to be a nurse.”

She plans to begin classes soon at Sinclair Community College.

“That’s the best part of the story,” Vidal said. “The nurses would kid her, ‘Chava, you could do this now.’”

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