When Cheryl Bennett found out she had breast cancer on June 1, she fell to the floor.
It was news she never expected to hear at 31.
Since then her family said she has shown incredible strength, facing the cancer, its side effects and even another illness with determination — all while raising her now 9-year-old and 13-month-old daughters.
In the midst of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, her family organized a music event and auction to help offset the financial burden treatment has created for Bennett and her boyfriend Michael Mazzaraco. "Care for Cher" will be held at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, where Mazzaraco works as a sound engineer, on Friday, starting at 6 p.m.
This spring, Bennett discovered a large mass protruding out her right breast three months after she stopped breastfeeding her daughter Sophia.
With three instances of breast cancer on her mother's side of the family, she is no stranger to self-examinations. In fact, two years earlier, she found what turned out to be a benign tumor in her left breast. But, the new mass was very firm and a lot larger. It turned out to be 1.8 centimeters, she said.
She visited her gynecologist soon after and a biopsy was scheduled. Her doctor, Dr. David Mangiameli at the Brookhaven Breast Health Services in Patchogue said it was a good thing she didn't ignore it, even though she thought she thought she was at lower risk for the disease. Statistics also show that women who have children before 30 and women who breastfeed are at lower risk for breast cancer; she had her first baby at 22 and breastfed both children.
Despite having family members with the disease, no one had tested positive for the BRCA gene.
As it turned out, she has Stage IIA-3, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, a type of breast cancer that feeds off estrogen and was aggravated by her recent pregnancy.
The cancer also spread to three lymph nodes, an upsetting diagnosis, but still localized, Bennett said.
"They usually see very poor outcomes with women diagnosed who are one-year postpartum," she said, adding doctors found many precancerous cells in her breast tissue.
"I look at my daughter as my little angel . . . she helped bring it out early and find it at an earlier stage."
Bennett opted for a double mastectomy, taking her age and the chance of reoccurrence into account. She underwent the seven-hour surgery that included the removal of a web of about 30 lymph nodes from around her right arm and breast, followed by a partial reconstruction, on July 3.
Chemotherapy was postponed twice after her surgery because she faced another illness. Doctors had put her on Cipro, an antibiotic, to help ward off infection after the surgery, but it only caused an infection in her intestines. She was ultimately diagnosed with Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that typically occurs after the use of antibiotic medications.
She finally began chemotherapy in August. Her last treatment is scheduled for Oct. 24, and she is hoping that Clostridium difficile does not postpone that treatment, as well. Her doctor hasn't decided yet whether she will need radiation.
Since Southampton Hospital's oncologists don't accept her insurance, she has been traveling to North Shore Hematology/Oncology Associates in Patchogue for treatments.
Mazzaraco, her boyfriend of five years, was not able to work as much this summer between traveling with her for doctors' appointments and caring for her and the two little girls. The family rents their home in Springs, but stayed for a time with Mazzaracro's parents in Hampton Bays to make traveling a little easier.
The travel and the costs not covered by insurance — such as homeopathic remedies and hair pieces after Bennett lost her hair — have put a financial strain on the young family, according to Bennett's cousin, Jaime L. Castantine, of East Hampton Village, who spearheaded organizing a fundraiser.
The community support has been overwhelming, Castantine said. Various artists will perform, including The Nancy Atlas Project, Winston Irie and Booga Sugar; high-profile artists, such as Joan Osborne and Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes, have signed guitars for auction. They have a Rihanna signed-perfume bottle, and much more. Bennett's cousin Tom Bono, who custom paints guitars, donated one — it's pink with a breast cancer awareness ribbon on it.
Castantine said Bennett approached fighting the cancer with a positive attitude. "I think she surprised everybody in our family with her disposition," she said. "She's determined. She's going to beat this thing. I don't think anyone in our family has any doubt."
Bennett said it's her daughters that keep her steadfast. "There's moments I get sad, but I want to stay positive for my daughters."
Between caring for a baby and the treatment, she said she doesn't even have time to get upset. "She keeps me going, she keeps me smiling. Every day she makes me laugh. That's what gives me the energy, the motive, and want to move on. I want to stay alive for my daughters," she said.
Her older daughter, Jenna, is in the fourth grade at the Springs School. "I ask her all the time: 'Does anything upset you?,' 'Are you upset to see Mommy's hair gone?' She said, 'a little,' that it looks a little funny, but that she just wants me to get better," Bennett said.
While she gets better, Bennett said she is also trying to lend support to others.
She said she was "petrified" before the double-mastectomy, as it was also her first time undergoing general anesthesia. So, she researched as much as she could about breast cancer. On YouTube, she found video diaries women had published showing the step-by-step process from diagnosis to full recovery, even including what her breasts would look like afterward. "That's what gave me the strength to step into that hospital," she said. "If they can do it, I knew I can do it."
She took videos from the night before her surgery and she's working on a video of her own to post for women all around the world to see.
"I definitely want to urge women to be more aware of their bodies, to do self examinations and to get mammograms when they're of a certain age," she said, particularly on the East End, where there is a higher incident of breast cancer. "I want younger women to be aware that cancer doesn't discriminate. It can happen at 31."
Admission is $20 in advance or $25 at the door. There will also be a Chinese auction and a raffle (the latter of which will be conducted on Oct. 31). Those tickets are $5 each or a book of five for $25.