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A family survives breast cancer

Three sisters and their mother share their experiences with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, which were all orchestrated by Karen Kostroff, MD.

Breast cancer is a family disease. Unfortunately, the Overton family knows this first, second, third and even fourth-hand.

Four women - three sisters and their mother - were diagnosed with and treated for the disease. Each are living well today, advocating for women to actively pursue screening and genetic testing, which can play a key role in a positive outcome.

The family has survived, thanks to the care of Karen Kostroff, MD, Northwell's chair of breast surgery. And they all wear matching bracelets to commemorate their survivorship.

"I have had the privilege of taking care of these brave women for more than 25 years," Dr. Kostroff said. "They have allowed me to guide them, take care of them and be available for them. They represent the entire spectrum of this disease, from Stage 0 to ductal carcinoma to inflammatory breast cancer.

"There is nothing more rewarding. This is a family that at every crossroad emphasized what they could do rather than be depressed or anxious. They focused on the positives."

Aggressive treatment for inflammatory breast cancer

Strong family bonds carried them through their experiences. They all live in Hampton Bays and have coached another through each surgery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and subsequent treatment.

Karen Connolly, the oldest of the sisters, was diagnosed first. Her outlook was initially bleak. In 1993, she was notified that she had Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer, which accounts for 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancers. She was expected to live 21 months post-diagnosis.

In disbelief, Ms. Connolly sought a second opinion with Dr. Kostroff. She called it the best decision she ever made.

"I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and if I didn't see Dr. Kostroff, I wouldn't be here today," she said as she held back tears. "I could've been your wife, your daughter, your mother or your sister. I feel the reason for my diagnosis was to pave the way for the rest of my family and anyone else who is going through this."

Ms. Connolly was 32 years old at the time. She was treated for mastitis after suffering from a miscarriage. Mastitis is inflammation of breast tissue that sometimes involves an infection. She endured two weeks of antibiotics but with no change.

It was cancer.

Dr. Kostroff recommended an aggressive plan that included high-dose chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy, as well as an experimental stem cell transplant, radiation and Tamoxifen - the oldest and most-prescribed selective estrogen receptor modulator that high-risk breast cancer patients receive.

"She underwent bone marrow/stem cell transplant, which is no longer done since breast cancer treatment has evolved," Dr. Kostroff said. "We are now offering what is the least toxic with the most effect."

Ms. Connolly, now director of Southampton's Chamber of Commerce, was declared cancer-free in 1993.

quotation mark I could’ve been your wife, your daughter, your mother or your sister. I feel the reason for my diagnosis was to pave the way for the rest of my family and anyone else who is going through this.
Karen Connolly

Two more breast cancer cases

A year later, Ms. Connolly's sisters, Juliana Armusewicz and Eva Williams, were also diagnosed. Yet their paths to recovery were very different.

Ms. Armusewicz was also 32 when diagnosed. Dr. Kostroff performed a lumpectomy followed by radiation to eliminate infiltrating duct carcinoma. She later tested positive for the BRCA II gene, which she inherited from her father, Rich Overton, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer three years ago.

When the cancer returned in 2003, Ms. Armusewicz's treatment included a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

"I am very fortunate - despite us all being unfortunate - that I had my sister to lead the way, because I knew exactly what to do, where to go and who to call," said Ms. Armusewicz. When her daughter, Courtney, also tested BRCA II positive, she underwent nipple-sparing prophylactic mastectomy to reduce her risk. "You have to be your own advocate and find the right answers. Be strong and stay strong."

Ms. Williams was tested at the same time as Ms. Armusewicz. Negative results led her to believe that she was in the clear - despite having a lump in her right breast.

"A needle biopsy initially said it was negative," Ms. Williams said. "But due to my history, Dr. Kostroff said, 'Let's remove it.'When I did, she called me the next day to tell me that it was cancer. I didn't know what to think, except how could this happen? Why us? Why us again?"

Dr. Kostroff removed the ductal invasive cancer and Ms. Williams has been cancer-free since.

But the family's experience didn't end there.

Yet another diagnosis

In 1998, their mother, Martha Overton, underwent lumpectomy after an atypical pre-cancer cell diagnosis. The disease returned in 2012, and Dr. Kostroff performed a bilateral mastectomy.

Four years later, she was again diagnosed with invasive cancer cyst in her chest wall. After chemotherapy and radiation, she is now cancer-free.

"My strength comes from them," Ms. Overton said of her daughters. "That's how I got through all that I went through.

"Rich, my husband, loved Dr. Kostroff as a daughter. He would hug her and say 'You are just like my daughters.' She brought them through life-threatening events."

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