Eight years after she was diagnosed with cancer, Anne Perella-Ferzoco is cancer-free and was among the tens of thousands of walkers who convened on the Charles River Esplanade on Oct. 4 for the American Cancer Society’s 5.7-mile fundraising walk, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
Anne Perella-Ferzoco and her husband had been watching their children open Christmas presents in their Roslindale home when their son called out to her.
Santa Claus had brought him just want he’d asked, Perella-Ferzoco recalled her son saying that winter morning in 2001. His Christmas wish come true had brought her to tears.
“My son asked Santa Claus if he could get Mommy back her hair,” said the mother of four, who had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer earlier that year. The first wisps of hair had begun to appear on Perella-Ferzoco, then 40, who had been left bald and scarred by a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
As she had taken out her holiday decorations that winter, Perella-Ferzoco was unsure she’d survive to see next Christmas. Eight years later, she is cancer-free and was among the tens of thousands of walkers who convened on the Charles River Esplanade on Oct. 4 for the American Cancer Society’s 5.7-mile fundraising walk, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
“The longer I’m out, the better I like it,” said Perella-Ferzoco, 48, a dog groomer and part-time librarian at St. Theresa of Avila School in West Roxbury, who lives in the same house on Metropolitan Avenue in which she grew up. “I hope I’m here 25 more years walking.”
One out of eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Although it is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the country, it also claims the largest number of cancer survivors in the United States — 2.5 million.
In Boston, the number of breast cancer cases in women has appeared to have risen by about 4 percent. From 1995-99, the state Department of Public Health counted 1,731 cases. From 2001-05, there were 1,801 cases documented. It is unclear from the data if the disease is more prevalent, if women afflicted with it are surviving longer, or if more women are seeking diagnoses and treatments.
Last year, the Boston fundraising walk raised $3.4 million through 38,000 walkers, according to the ACS. Individually, Perella-Ferzoco estimated she has raised about $12,000 in the six years she has walked with her team, “Annie’s Team,” started in 2001 by her seven sisters-in-law who had formed the group in her name. Last year, her four children walked with the team for the first time.
Now entering their teenage years, her children were barely school-aged when the Roslindale mother was diagnosed. She had shielded them from the harsh truth of cancer when they were young, explaining that “Mommy had something inside that they had to take out, like a seed,” Perella-Ferzoco said.
“I did not want the children to be traumatized by it. I just didn’t want them afraid that Mommy wasn’t going to be around, even though in the back of my mind I kept saying, ‘Dear God, make me live’,” she said. “It helped me to believe that I’m not going to let this disease take control of my life. It made me stronger.”
Perella-Ferzoco found the peanut-sized lump in her breast the day before her twin daughters’ dance recital and birthday party. She called the doctor, who conducted a mammography that afternoon. Nothing showed up in the machine’s imagery — not the lump she and her doctor could see and feel. Perella-Ferzoco at first shrugged off her doctor’s insistence she return the next day for a biopsy.
She conceded and allowed the procedure. One of her younger sisters, a nurse, was with her when Perella-Ferzoco learned she tested positive. Perella-Ferzoco passed the phone to her sister.
“I sort of shut down. You don’t hear any more when you hear ‘cancer’,” she said. “I was kind of memorized. My whole reaction was, ‘Get this out of my body’.”
Three weeks later, doctors removed one of her breasts. They found cancer inside was stage 2, grade 3, meaning it was moderately aggressive. Perella-Ferzoco chose not to have reconstructive surgery, knowing her body did not respond well to general anesthesia. About a month later, she began chemotherapy. Most of the time it made her nauseous. One drug cocktail was so toxic, it seared the skin on her feet and palms.
“It was very difficult when I started chemo. I lost my hair, I lost my breast and went into menopause at the same time,” Perella-Ferzoco said. “My husband was a wonderful support system and was just great. I could not find myself as attractive at all, but my husband — it was like he didn’t notice.”
Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and strangers also showed kindness. Perella-Ferzoco found a hot meal on her porch every morning. Her twin daughters cut their hair for the first time when they were 5 years old, donating the hair to Locks of Love, a nonprofit that uses donated hair to gift hairpieces to low-income children who have lost their hair due to a medical condition or treatment.
Perella-Ferzoco said she found solace in routine, continuing to work and remain active in her children’s lives — a philosophy she follows today, knowing her cancer could recur at any moment.
“I kept saying, ‘I can beat this, and it’s not going to beat me,’ “ she said. “[Cancer] teaches you life is too short and not to lose it over stupid things. I don’t know why I had it. I don’t know what I was supposed to learn, but it does make you appreciate what you have.”