NYSUT members, through their steadfast generosity, have raised more than $1 million annually in the last four years to help find a cure for breast cancer. This is NYSUT's 10th year as a flagship sponsor of the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks held in the fall across New York to benefit breast cancer awareness, research and treatment. Everyone, in some way, is touched by cancer, and none more profoundly than victims themselves. Here's why these NYSUT members walk:
In memory of 'Mrs. Swiz'
At nine months pregnant, Stacy Van Cott found a lump in her breast. A day after delivering her daughter, she had an ultrasound, then a biopsy, and then the diagnosis: breast cancer. After several operations and chemotherapy, Van Cott is nine years cancer-free.
"I walk for many reasons," said Van Cott, a special education teacher at Albany High School. "It's the time of year when you get going in life and it's real busy. It's time to stop and remember what I went through and how grateful I am to be nine years out."
This year, Van Cott is walking in honor of her friend and colleague, Dian Swierzowski, a teaching assistant students nicknamed "Mrs. Swiz," who died earlier this year from breast cancer. "She fought her battle with courage and dignity. She didn't give up," said Van Cott, a member of the Albany Public School Teachers Association.
Survivor: Know the signs
For the past six years, Barbara Butrick, a member of the Newburgh Teaching Assistants Association, has organized a group of her peers to participate in the Strides walk. "They have to come up with a cure," she said.
Education is key. Butrick talks to other women about what signs to look for to detect breast cancer.
It's not just about lumps. Signs of rough, patchy and bumpy, rash-like skin can be an indication of inflammatory breast cancer.
Butrick went to her doctor about a light rash on the side and top of her breast. She was "very healthy" and had no family history of breast cancer. She was advised to come back three months later, by which time her skin "looked like an orange peel." A mammogram showed a tumor. After a biopsy she learned she had Stage 3B cancer.
Doctors told her she would need a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
"Inflammatory breast cancer is very hard to diagnose," Butrick said. While it does not generate chronic pain, it does create fleeting, "lightning bolts of pain."
Butrick is now a Making Strides team captain for her group of about 25 teaching assistants who will join the Strides walk in Harriman.
'They showed up for me'
When Regina Muscarella walked in the Rochester Strides walk, she was stunned.
"I couldn't believe the number of people who showed up. I took it personal. They showed up for me!" she said. "I was just finishing chemo. I had a scarf on. I was bald."
Muscarella, a member of the Victor TA, has been walking in the event since 1999, one year after being diagnosed.
"My cancer was not detectable without a mammogram," she said. "There were no lumps, but it was invasive. It had already spread into my nodes." Muscarella had surgery and chemotherapy.
She was out of school one month, although she came back one week after her operation to have lunch with her students. One of them had lost a mom to breast cancer the year before, and Muscarella wanted to reassure her students she was all right.
Her mantra to herself: "If I can go to school, I'm going to be OK." Now a team captain, she walks with colleagues, family and friends, and asks everyone who walks to bring one friend.
"Getting up early on a Sunday morning, especially if it's raining, is still a heck of a lot easier than getting up for chemo," she said. "I always think: One year. One dollar. One thing will be the thing that unlocks it."