by Alice E. Gerard
On March 21, 2013, the day before Eileen Sweeney-Melgar's 52nd birthday, she was lying on the couch and was enjoying "The Walking Dead," an AMC program that featured the dreaded zombies. Sweeney-Melgar said that she was happy that day because her plan to lose weight and get off diabetes medication was working. She said her motivation to keep her diabetes under control were her two children, Jessica, then 18, and David, then 25. But when she unsuccessfully tried to roll over, she discovered that she had a problem.
"I rested my hands on my chest and went, 'Oh, my Lord! What is that?" The next day, she went to see her primary care physician, Dr. Syed E. Haq, who sent her to Sisters of Charity Hospital for testing. Within the space of a week, Sweeney-Melgar had a mammogram, a sonogram, a biopsy, and an MRI.
Sweeney-Melgar, a former oncology nurse, said that she wanted to know if the cyst was benign when she asked, "Does the cyst have a nice round border?" She was told, no, that the cyst was branching out, which she described as a "typical sign of cancer." The MRI detected six more lumps in Sweeney-Melgar's breast and her lymph nodes. "The doctor said that this thing was growing in me for five years."
Sweeney-Melgar's diagnosis was stage three breast cancer. The surgeon who originally planned on doing a lumpectomy decided on a left modified radical mastectomy instead. It was also decided that Sweeney-Melgar should go through chemotherapy before having her surgery. She described that as "atypical." In May, she began chemotherapy.
Sweeney-Melgar, originally from Yonkers, in Westchester County, said that she discovered a community of support in her hour of need.
"I am fortunate to have people here who are positive and who keep me positive." She said that her best friend, Kathy Olszewski, "has been there with me through good and through bad," including five different hospital stays.
Olszewski said that, as a friend, her tasks are to "drive her to appointments, sit with her, take her out for lunch once a week, bring her groceries, and try to keep her focused and to remember that cancer is her enemy." Sweeney-Melgar, who sees her brother and two sisters only during holidays, said that she did not have family in Western New York to support her during her illness.
Each day is a challenge for Sweeney-Melgar, Olszewski said. She said, "There were days when she did not want to go for treatment. She'd get discouraged. There would be a lot of tears, and she was frightened. I would remind her who the enemy was and what she was fighting for and that I was with her for the long haul."
One family member, her aunt Maureen, traveled the 400 miles from Yonkers to be with her. "She came here so I wouldn't have to go to chemo alone."
But she too was sick and was diagnosed with emphysema. "She is a mom to me. At a time like this, you want your mommy."
Sweeney-Melgar's mother died six years ago and is buried at the St. Stephen R.C. Church cemetery. "I was looking for signs from my mom that she is here. One day, I went to Roswell Park and I saw Frank Cannata there, playing the piano. He had played for my mom's funeral. I knew that my mom was there. I moved all of my appointments to Thursdays, when he plays at Roswell. I find peace when I sit and listen."
Two weeks before Christmas of 2013, Sweeney-Melgar had surgery. She talked about that experience. "It's all about body image. I had lost my breast. I was afraid that people would stare. What's worse? Losing your hair or your breast? I had long, pretty reddish-brown hair."
Shortly after her surgery, Sweeney-Melgar drove to Yonkers. "I was glad to be home with family for Christmas."
Sweeney-Melgar said that was concerned about the effect that her cancer would have on her two children. "My daughter lives with me. She sees me cry."
Jessica, a student at Erie Community College, is planning on a nursing career. Her son, who works at Olive Garden, got married in September. He had her favorite song, "Loves Me Like a Rock," by Paul Simon, played at the wedding. "He remembered my song, and I danced with him," Sweeney-Melgar said.
Sweeney-Melgar said that she had previously been so unconcerned about cancer that she was not getting regular mammograms. "I thought that the diabetes will kill me. I lost 90 pounds," she said.
Living with cancer is about more than the medical aspects of the disease. "I'm having financial problems. I'm trying to pay my hospital bills and my household bills. I lost my job at the Sisters of St. Francis convent in Williamsville. I'm on disability. I've been out of work since March of last year. I'm afraid of losing my house."
When Sweeney-Melgar didn't have the money to buy a prom dress for Jessica, "the moms at Miss Cathy's Dance Academy (1917 Staley Road) took Jessica out and bought her a prom dress." The Neighbors Foundation gave Sweeney-Melgar bags of groceries.
"Through all of the bad, I have found so much kindness in people I didn't know."
One of those people was Kimberly Schopp Kalman. When she found out that Sweeney-Melgar's children could not be with her on Mother's Day, she invited her to go out with her, her husband and their children. "She didn't want me to be alone on Mother's Day." The next day, she celebrated Mother's Day with her two children.
"It took a lot for me to have to ask for help," Sweeney-Melgar said. A website was set up to help her raise money for her medical bills and, so far, $2,051 has been raised. (The website can be found at http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/help-for-cancer-treatment/133610.)
Sweeney-Melgar is also raising money for Relay For Life. She said that she went last year and was called a "survivor."
"I was just diagnosed. I am a survivor when it's gone and I'm cancer-free. They haven't told me that."
Last year, her fundraising goal was $500. This year, she set a low goal of $100 because people have been donating to help her with the expenses of treatment. She's raised $150 so far. In the past, she said that she believed that Relay For Life was for kids.
When Jessica told her that Olszewski was there, she found out that "mommies get to go, too. It was nice." She will be at Relay this year May 31 to place luminaria for two uncles and an aunt.
She said that, sometimes, having cancer makes her question her faith. "Cancer sucks. It rips at your heart. I hug the little children at Roswell. They shouldn't have cancer. When I was at Roswell, I heard one kid from Grand Island say, 'And I didn't throw up, not once!' "
Reflecting on her 10 years as an oncology nurse, she said, "I've seen people die. It's not fun. They suffer."
She said that she is saying a novena to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. "I don't want to be homeless. My goal is to get a job and to get a bachelor's degree in nursing. I'm going to live and I'm going to be a grandmother."
But, she added, "I'm a realist. I know that the cancer is in my lymph nodes. It could spread. I don't think that it will show its ugly face for 10 years. I don't want to live my life worrying that I will relapse. I don't want my daughter to worry."
Sweeney-Melgar's advice to women is "Get your mammogram every year. Don't assume that, because it is normal one year, you are safe. It creeps up on you."
But she also added that, in many cases, a mammogram is only a starting point, as an MRI is more accurate in detecting small lesions than a mammogram. She said that she feels that insurance companies should pay for the MRI, in addition to the mammogram. Currently, insurance companies pay for the MRI only if a woman is already diagnosed with breast cancer.
Pictured: Eileen Sweeney-Melgar and her dog Sophie. (photo by Alice E. Gerard)