Friday, November 7, 2014

RHONJ's Amber Marchese: The Real Cancer Story Behind This Real Housewife - "I Looked Like a Turnip" - How She Would Like to Save a Life with Her Story

Editor's Note: In this candid interview, RHONJ Amber Marchese opens up about her bout with breast cancer, detailing everything from when she first found it to the way her chemo made her feel to how her husband was there for her the whole time. Read about the doctor that saved her life, how she dealt with the pain, and get some words of wisdom.

Though her story is her own, Amber's story is typical in many respects of many women's struggle with breast cancer. Though there is still so much more needed to be discovered about this disease, her story mirrors the story of hundreds of thousands of other women, women who can proudly call themselves survivors.

Breast cancer is for real, Amber's breast cancer was for real. Though people may question why she brings it up on her show, it really brings true meaning to the title "Real Housewife". Amber will carry this badge of honor throughout her life,  her struggle was as real as it gets and hopefully other women who have been through what she has been through or have just received this life-changing news will see hope in it that all things shall pass and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't think that Amber ever thought, while sitting in a chemo chair, that five years later she would be on a TV show donating her locks of hair for other breast cancer patients. Her message, Dream Big.

And Amber, thanks so much for this interview and your honesty. - Suzee

So Young

Suzee: Breast cancer awareness is always in the news. Before I start talking about you, I noticed Joan Lunden has been so many interviews and talking frankly about her struggle with breast cancer.

Amber Marchese: You know, I didn't even know she had breast cancer, I just saw it - it's all over the magazines and thought Oh my God, I had no idea, she is unbelievable. She's super gorgeous.

Suzee: Yes, she is older than you though, more of the typical age for getting breast cancer. Your story is different, you experienced it as a twenty-something, a different generation. 

Amber Marchese: Yes, absolutely, and this is one of the things that I had a hard time with. I was quite young, there was no one that was waking my walk,  you know it was awesome that there were so many people that were offering their help and their insight but they were 45 and 50, and though I loved an appreciated it, I did't feel like I could always relate to it.

Suzee: I've had friends that have had it, most were in their 40's. Who knows what is actually causing this? 

Amber Marchese: Well, it's funny but it's not funny, when I was with my doctor, we took a whole genetic panel as well and I just got my test results back a couple days ago.   I guess I forgot about it, but he related to me that I  have absolutely no abnormalities in my genetic coding,  there's nothing wrong with my genetics, this is strictly environmental.

Amber's Family and Life Before Breast Cancer

Suzee: Living in NJ, where we have so many people and a really bad reputation when it comes to cancer, did you know a lot of people with cancer?

Amber Marchese: Actually, believe it or not I didn't know anyone with cancer. We had heart attacks in my family, there was like no cancer, none of my friends' parents had it, but once in awhile you would hear a about a childhood cancer but that was it.

You know my dad was diagnosed when I was 19 with pancreatic cancer. That was my first experience with any type of cancer and it went unfortunately, really fast for him. He was diagnosed in September and died in January so like when I first was diagnosed, immediately I went to thinking that my case was going to be like my father's, that I would go very quick and there was no chance of survival and you know, its just not like that! 

Breast cancer is very different, and there's much more known, unlike pancreatic cancer there's just not that much known about it.  There's so much known about breast cancer, preventative measures as well as treatment.

" (People have said) I've been using the cancer card. I'm a survivor. I am using this show as a platform to raise awareness and possibly save a life."- Amber Marchese

The mortality  rate for breast cancer has dropped significantly in the last 15- 20 years for sure. My type of cancer was very aggressive I was a Her-2 positive and I just want you to know, in the 80's, if you were given that type of diagnosis your chances of survival were not that great until the drug Herceptin came around. Herceptin actually flips that diagnosis around, it's just so receptive to this drug. Right Jim? (She conferred with Jim on this.) Yes, it was Herceptin. Geez, it's been five years since I used that drug.

Amber knows her way around a gym   Photo from FB
Suzee: Were you always into health an fitness? You have your own fitness business called Vici Fitness and  a Master's in Behavioral Studies/Exercise Physiology from Columbia University, That's a mouthful but very impressive!

Amber Marchese: I always was healthy!  I had the typical college life though, yeah, I drank alcohol, ate some junky food - it was college, I had fun!  I didn't really really get into health and fitness till about 27 and at that point I had already had cancer. I figure that because, if I was diagnosed by 31 it had been developing around 27, 28.  In my
heart I  think a lot had to do with September 11th.  I was  down by those buildings quite often, and I lived across the Hudson River from it. The fumes... I smelled it every day, I just always felt like that might have had something to do with it.

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Suzee: I am not going to disagree with that! No one really knows what that caused, they're still finding out. Also, so many people, and people that I know, that have had some time of cancer or illness look for something that they did that might have caused it, or they blame themselves.  I no doubt think that had something to do with it, but i also believe it's a perfect storm that causes something.

Amber Marchese: Oh definitely I agree, there' so many other factors  - its the food industry, the chemicals in it, the food the water. There are so many things out there with awful things in it.

Feeling The Lumps - Was Something Really Wrong?

Suzee: Did you always get your mammos and do you do self exams?

Amber Marchese: Well I was too young for mammos! So it was not part of my gynecology exam. I felt my lumps while breastfeeding.  It was actually a blessing  that I did because I was able to feel the lump. There were multiple lumps and I remember I turned to my husband and said, "Can you feel this?"  And he felt it and said, "Yep, I think you should go to the doctor." And that's when the whole thing started.

Suzee:  And when you felt them, did you think right away, "OMG I have cancer!" or did you just figure you would get them checked out and you didn't start worrying?

Amber Marchese: I think I was more like, I'm just gonna get it checked out and see what happens, because I actually had had cysts removed, all were benign.  I don't know you don't think in those terms. like oh my God I am going to get cancer, like I didn't think that was in my cards at all. It is still so shocking today that it is something that I went through.

Suzee: And when you went to your doctor, was he or she optimistic or pessimistic when he or she she first felt the lumps?
Amber Marchese: Well, believe it or not, my gynecologist, I swear, she saved my life, breastfeeding saved my life. My doctor, she told me, she felt the lumps and she said to me, "I want you to go to a surgeon and get it biopsied. So I said, "Okay, " you know, begrudgingly, I had one of those attitudes, I was like, I got kids, things to do, you know, but okay, I'll go.

So you know I went to the surgeon and got my ultrasound, I remember thinking we weren't really liking the way it looked but we were still not thinking that it was like, definitely cancer but we went to the surgeon and the surgeon looked and the surgeon was like, "You know, I'm really sick and tired of doctors taking everything too seriously, making everyone upset, thinking everything is wrong."

We were about to go on vacation. He said go on vacation, when you get back we will take a look at it again he said "but don't worry about it", that's what he tells me. So i go back to my gynecologist. I show her the slides and she literally says to me."I don't care what that doctor says your getting a biopsy."  So I went back to the doctor and I said my gyno wants a biopsy. So I got a biopsy and it turned out to be abnormal cells, and that's when the nightmare began, because now I'm feeling, I (have to get a) lumpectomy. Then they examined the size of the mass, of the tissue and it came out to be invasive carcinoma.

So if had listened to that one doctor, the surgeon I would not be here today.

So I called my gyno and said "Why did you take it so seriously? Why did you push me?"

And my gyno  said, "Oh, well let me tell you a story when I was in residency. There was  a young girl there 29 years old. She was on her deathbed and this young lady told her me her story that then years ago, she went  to a traveling van where they were doing mammograms, and she waked in to the van and she said can i get a mammogram?" She said I've  got breast cancer in my family and I just would like to get checked it checked. She said the girl in the van said, "yeah, don't worry about it, you're too young, don't worry, go home, you know live your life, have a good time."

I came to find out, she had cancer and if she would have had that mammogram she would have been living today so she ended up dying."

My doctor said that she would this young lady my doctor saw that and vowed that she would never, ever let that happen again

Suzee: You were blessed with a great doctor.

Amber Marchese: And that's one of the missions I have. Too make sure I get that message out to younger women. You go until someone can completely rule out cancer

And my sister just told me the other day that something inconclusive came up on her slide. I told her, ask for a biopsy. She said the doctor was sending her away for another six months, too. I said to her "absolutely not you're going in and getting a biopsy today."

Suzee: All doctors are different, I have girlfriend who is  constantly going for biopsies.

Amber Marchese: Well of course it can be obsessive sometimes, but I don't think a biopsy, well, it's not invasive whatsoever its just quickly putting a needle in, taking a sample.

Suzee: So the biopsy did not bother you?

Amber Marchese: No, not at all, it was very simple.

Suzee: And you didn't have any pain afterwards?

Amber Marchese: No.

Suzee: And so you loved your doctor, but my next questions is, and we all do it, did you think ,"I have to get a second opinion, I have to go into the city." Did you do that?

Amber Marchese: No, I loved my doctor. I took my papers away from that surgeon. 

Getting Started - Finding Your Dream Team

Suzee: What did you do next?

Amber Marchese: Once I was diagnosed with cancer the first step is now you have to find your dream team!

You need to get your surgeon, you need to find a plastic surgeon and you need to find your oncologist.  Those are the three doctors that you need. and typically you'll have your plastic surgeon work with your surgeon, and you have to make sure that they work well together. My  husband, Thank God, he took the reigns from that point, did research a ton of research, and you know he has a background in oncology. He found the dream team. They were amazing and once I found them it was my home and I thank God for them everyday.

Suzee: I know many people, when they had  cancer, like my sister-in-law's dad had it and it was too close to her, so she asked me to do some research. I see that is the case for you too, someone else took over.

Amber Marchese: Yeah, 100% . Even when i was sitting there, anytime I went to the doctor it was like listening to Charlie Brown's teacher. Wwawawawawawawa  it was like I heard nothing. I was just like, just  let me know if I'm gonna die. That was the only question I kept on asking. Am I going to be taken away from my children? Like am I going to die, am I going to survive? Tell me now. And everything else, my husband took the reigns  and I thank God for him. You never know what you're going to miss too. You're in a heightened state of anxiety, you're in stress, you don't know if your going to process the information

Suzee: So did he go with you to all of your appointments? Did you have a friend that went with you?

The Marcheses  at Metlife Stadium                 Photo courtesy FB
Amber Marchese: My husband's business suffered, I  tell you that he went to every single appointment,  every surgery, every chemotherapy. There was not one thing he missed.

Suzee: So when you had to get chemo he sat with you the whole time?

Amber Marchese: The whole time.  Yep, he would go get me lunch, he would get me books, he would get me a sweater from the store if I was cold.  It didn't matter what I needed, he was there.

Suzee: That's wonderful. Not everyone has that.

Amber Marchese: I know, we are very blessed. and not for one day did I take that for granted.

Suzee: And you went to a hospital near you?

Amber Marchese: I went to Robert Woods Johnson Medical Center.



Advice from the 
American Cancer Society
The Mastectomy

Suzee: Tell me about the mastectomy. Was it painful?

Amber Marchese: Yes.

Suzee: How painful?

Amber Marchese: When I woke up from the mastectomy  it was like I was hit by a mack truck. Pretty awful. I was in a lot of pain. I couldn't move, I had tubes,  4 tubes coming out of my body collecting fluids.  I was only supposed to sit around, like maybe for a week but I ended up sitting for a month  Literally I couldn't sleep laying down I had to had to sleep sitting up because of the way the drains were, the tubes were literally coming out going down my body so it pinched a lot and it made sleeping very uncomfortable. it was just very painful, long. The surgery I remember it being long it was a like a 12 hour surgery (She checked with Jim on this.)

"When she was in surgery, I never cried like that before."  - Jim Marchese

Suzee: Now for the recuperative time. Were you up in a month, several weeks? When were you able to walk around and make dinner for your kids?

Amber Marchese: I would say about a good three weeks.

Suzee: Okay, and I am sure they offered you pain meds. Did you take anything?

Amber Marchese: I was on pain medication, but they made me awfully constipated, extremely like I've never felt before you know. As soon as I could get off of them  I did. Then I just went to heavy amounts of ibuprofen.

Suzee: And would you say like in two months or so you were able to go shopping or something like that?

Amber Marchese: Yeah, I mean it was about a month, month and half before I could drive. Then I had to quickly recover because I needed to start chemo after that. So I had my surgery I think in June right? (checking with Jim). Yeah, I had my surgery in June and started my first chemo in July. Ah, geez from one thing to another.

And I was anxious to get it done, because you know I wanted to get it done and get it over with!

Chemotherapy - "I Looked Like a Turnip"

Suzee: And now they give you all that info and stats about chemo and how it will increase your chances of it not returning.  Is that why you did it?

Amber Marchese: Well because of my age and I had children, someone in their 60's might not, well they might not recommend it because it is very strenuous on the body, But it was almost like, I'm so healthy, why not? The only downside is that if I didn't do it, and there was a cell that was you know floating around in my body, that could be life-threatening.

And for Stage 1, not everyone is recommended for chemotherapy, Typically Stage 1 means it was contained to my breasts. and hadn't traveled to my lymph nodes.

Suzee: So tell me about the chemo, how bad was it for you?

Amber Marchese: Chemo was long,  I just remember it being very long. It was just like, marking the days out, day by day. I was thinking, the hardest part there, well there were two parts that were very difficult, one was losing my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows. I looked like a turnip. It was not nice at all!!  I was you know, newly married, had children, I didn't want to scare my kids. You know as a women you just want to  feel beautiful, I was just getting over a pregnancy, I  wasn't feeling wonderful about myself to being with,  and here now, I'm bald.

It was not nice at all.

And Taxol, it made you feel like death, it made you feel awful.  It was not good, but because a lot of antimed drugs, it actually makes it bearable, actually they were anti-anxiety antiemetic.  Actually I think  Taxol - Taxol was my second round of chemotherapy, oh, that was awful. It made my head buzz, my teeth numb and sometimes I would just thank God my mom was with me to help me out on days like that.

Suzee: I used to take my friend to chemo, and I would see all those people suffering. And so I am wondering did you have anything that you did to help relieve the pain? Did you watch a movie, did you get a massage or did you just say leave me alone?

Amber Marchese: You know, when you have kids, you don't think about yourself so much, I really wanted to just focus on my kids. My kids were so little so they really just kept my focus and my mind off of me ... but I always did yoga , kept myself active, no matter what I still grocery-shopped, I still did my motherly duties.

Suzee: Even right after the chemo, I know it takes, like about 24 hours to really hit your system, were you active then?

Amber Marchese: No, so what would happen is right afterwards, there was something called Neulasta. I had to take it would kick in, it would take about like 2 days before I was feeling not so good. You just feel sick, almost like the flu and then you would take Neulasta because my white blood cells would be zonked out, like in two days so I would have to so once I took that, well my joints would ache, So I would say the first two or three days I needed my mom to be around to help with the kids. Then after that it got better a little bit. And then every two weeks I had to go through that whole process again.

Suzee: And how long 6 months, a year, did you have to do this? How many rounds?

Amber Marchese: I had two months, oh my God no 4 months of chemotherapy every two weeks and then a year and a half of  another drug, Then my hair grew back, it didn't cause any hair loss, thank God. but yeah I still had to go, had to sit in the chemo chair for another year and half after that. It was a long process.

Suzee: And so from when you were diagnosed, would you say it was maybe a year before you felt like yourself again, including the reconstruction?

Amber Marchese: I would say it was a good year.

Getting Her New Boobs

Amber Marchese & Fan Joanne E.
Suzee: And the reconstruction came how soon after the chemo?

Amber Marchese: I would say maybe 6 months (confirmed with Jim). So I started chemo in July, it was about five months after I had the reconstruction. Boy you are really making me go back now with specific questions :-), I finished chemo in October, I did my reconstruction about November or December. I was still on Herceptin, but  not the hardcore chemotherapy ,I stopped chemo October 31. You know what date is coming to my mind, December 12 or Dec 13th, which by the way, that was really easy,

Suzee: I don't want to bug you with too many more questions, so I won't go into the details of the recon, needless to say it went very well!

Amber Marchese: They're beautiful They look more gorgeous than they did after breastfeeding kids.

Amber's Advice: Put On Your Big Girl Panties and Do What You Need To Do!

Suzee: DO you have any advice for someone going through this that was just diagnosed, aside from finding your dream team, any words of encouragement? If  someone was just diaagosed, what would you tell them? Any words of wisdom?

Amber Marchese: I would say just, um, focus in on the treatments,  go ahead and cry it out, then put your big girl panties on and do what you need to survive!

That's what I would say. Pray a lot, too, you now,  if you believe in God pray, pray hard and spend a lot of time with your family and just get through the chemo.

Try not to complain, don't do the pity party. Just be strong and get it done because there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, it does end and life goes on and gets back to normal.

Suzee: Excellent words of wisdom!! Thanks for the interview!

Amber back to normal signing autographs at the NBC/NY Giants/Quest Expo in NJ
Some Facts About Breast Cancer:

About 232,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.

About 40,000 women will die from breast cancer

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. 

At this time there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States
Source: ACS
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Reunion Amber: Photo Courtesy Facebook
Written by suzanne ordas curry/Photos by same unless otherwise credited.
This article is dedicated to my friend who silently and bravely had the same struggle, another survivor I can still "lunch with".