Extraordinary People Sharing Their Stories:
Sharon Slosarik, Fierce Pink Warrior
Susan J. Farese, SJF Communications
In honor of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’d like to introduce you to an inspiring, extraordinary person and true pink warrior, Sharon Slosarik, who is living life to the absolute fullest with Stage 4 Breast Cancer since 2006. That’s right, 8 years at Stage 4!!!! Sharon and I are “pseudo-cousins” and 2nd generation members of the very special one-of-a-kind “B-Cliff Club“, courtesy of our fathers and dear to our hearts. Little did they know what an impact the B-Cliff has had on our lives!
Much more about Sharon and her fierceness soon, but first a little history on the the B-Cliff Club (as you might be wondering about the name and how it came about)!
Tidbits About the B-Cliff Club
Sharon’s Dad Johnny (who sadly passed away in 2010) and my Dad Frank, along with 4 other grammar school buddies, Joe (Frank’s cousin), Steve, Paul and Vic, became lifelong friends in Passaic, New Jersey during the 1940’s and have continued through high school and life.
During the mid to late 1950’s…the six guys were courting and ultimately getting married to their sweethearts. They formed the very unique “B-Cliff Club”…each letter standing for the initial of their Italian last names. Sharon’s Dad Johnny provided the only vowel, the “i” in the group.
Each month or so, the young couples would gather at one of their homes. The guys would play cards, the ladies would chat about this or that. They’d all share conversations, listen to the music of the time, laugh a lot, enjoy food and light libations, etc. Twice a year they would host in some way or another.
The B-Cliff meetings continued over the years as each of the couples became parents, their kids endured K-12 and college, marriages, grandchildren and issues in-between etc. and we all became “cousins” by default! The families celebrated priceless friendships at Italian feasts, dude ranches, Great Adventure and other fun spots throughout the years. To this day, the B-Cliff Club meets every few months, despite miles between them the furthest living in Georgia, and some in Northern NJ and several in Southern NJ.
Sharon’s Story…Life Before Her Diagnosis
Now all about Sharon…She was born in 1967 to Uncle Johnny and “Irish” Aunt Connie and grew up with her older sister Dawn (who is 4 years older than Sharon) in NJ. She graduated from Lenape Valley Regional High School in Stanhope, NJ and obtained her degree in English Writing and Communications at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989. After college Sharon worked for Dun & Bradstreet as a National Business Consultant and Risk Evaluation Consultant and then as Administrative Assistant to the Head of Dermatology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY.
Sharon and her future husband John had known the same friends since 8th grade but had never met. It was one infamous evening, however after she graduated from college, when Sharon was “stood-up” on a date with another boy, that hit the icing on the cake. Sharon’s fierceness surfaced when she encountered that “stander upper” at the establishment John was working at. After telling him a thing or two…she boldly poured a beer over the guy! Incidentally they remain friends to this day (but John lucked out)!
One late night in NYC Sharon and her friend went to a comedy club. There she was, in ’90’s attire, including stiletto heels, her “jersey hair”, & “lots of makeup”. After the club, in the wee small hours of the morning, Sharon and her girlfriend went to a park because Sharon wanted to go on the swings. They had a heart to heart chat about what they were looking for in their future husbands. Sharon spouted off many of the qualities she was looking for..and her friend blurted out: JOHN! He is your ideal husband!
Needless to say, it took a little bit longer, but Sharon and John were happily married on 9.4.94. (fast forward…this year celebrated their 20th anniversary)!
After multiple attempts to conceive, they decided to try In Vitro. Their beautiful daughter Jennie, now 16, a Junior in high school, and a pink warrior-ette too, was born in 1998. More on Jennie later!
The events of September 11, 2001 strongly affected Sharon, as she lost several friends who either worked in the Twin Towers or were first responders who helped in the recovery of victims. After 9/11, she was compelled to make a drastic change. Sharon took a huge pay cut, took classes and embarked on her new career as a credentialed teacher. She has been teaching 9th and 10th grade English ever since (with gaps for medical reasons) at inner-city Passaic High School, the alma mater of the B-Cliff guys. She also is active as a class advisor. Additionally she serves as a tutor and chaperone for the New Jersey R.O.T.C. (Navy) as well as an advisor for the National Honor Society.
The First Diagnosis & Treatment
Fast forward to May, 2003, when Jennie was almost 5 years old. Sharon and John had gone to the rain delayed Yankees vs. Boston game in the Bronx that Wednesday evening. Late that night when they finally got home from the game, John was taking a shower after his then split-shift at work, with Sharon sitting on their bed. Sharon felt some “itchiness” in the area on her chest. She rubbed the itchy area and sadly discovered a lump on her breast. That was the beginning. They both shed the beginning of many tears. The next morning they rushed to Sharon’s OB/GYN, who ordered an urgent mammogram that afternoon followed by an ultrasound the next day after work. Once the pre-op labs and workup was completed Sharon had a lumpectomy the following Tuesday, which was standard practice at the time. The diagnosis was stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma an estrogen aggressive type of breast cancer which was bulging the lymph ducts. It was an omen that the ducts didn’t burst for fear of spreading. Five lymph nodes were positive. The decision to have the lumpectomy was because at the time, she was told that chemo, radiation and lumpectomy had the same success cure rate within 5%. The surgeon removed 5-6 nodes were biopsied.
In December 2003, Sharon experienced nine rounds of chemotherapy and 36 doses of radiation. Sharon lost her hair from the chemo and had other side effects. The radiation caused 2nd and 3rd degree burns, which required “Silvadene with gauze, tank tops, and big shirts” to go along with the pain and nausea.
BRCA-1 Gene Positive
A few years passed. Then, in 2006, Sharon found out that she was BRCA-1 gene positive. Of note is that her paternal grandmother and all of her grandmother’s sisters as well as all of her paternal grandfather’s sisters had breast cancer and several paternal relatives had colon cancer. She was the 4th generation to have breast cancer. Sharon’s sister Dawn has tested negative. Jennie will be tested at age 18.
Sharon’s Cancer Returns…This Time Stage 4
Once she found out that she was BRCA-1 positive, she decided to have an elective bilateral mastectomy as a precaution. While having her preop workup with labs and tests, it was discovered “accidentally” that her breast cancer had unfortunately returned. Despite her earlier Stage 3 breast cancer and treatment regimen of her lumpectomy, chemo and radiation, this time, her cancer was classified as Stage 4. Additionally, it metastasized to her lung, slightly on one of her ovaries as well as one of her fallopian tubes. Even with her physician’s reluctance, Sharon fought hard and ultimately had a bilateral mastectomy, removal of her ovary and had 4 inches of her lung resected.
The Surgery and Aftermath
After a terrible encounter in 2006 with her Oncologist who “didn’t want to treat her due to the fact that she was going to die from stage 4 breast cancer”, Sharon waited a year and found a wonderful new Oncologist and team. She was advised not to have new implants. In 2009, Sharon underwent and endured a 14 hour trans-flap reconstruction comprised of 6 or 7 procedures from a team of physicians. She had an enormous amount of postoperative pain which persisted for months.
In 2011 Sharon’s Physician started her on a new med, Zometa, twice a year. Zometa is an intravenous medication which treats bone problems from cancer. She suffers from difficult side effects from this treatment, including ongoing neuropathy.
Sharon sees her Gynecologist, Oncologist and Primary Physician regularly. She had scans every three months for awhile, then every 6 months. After celebrating 5 years at stage 4, since nuclear scans can lead to toxins she now has them every 18 months to two years.
Sharon’s Warrior Spirit and Community Involvement
Interview Q & A with Sharon
SF: Please share your involvement with Breast Cancer awareness in the community:
Sharon: My sister Dawn first saw a commercial for the Susan G. Komen walk in 2002 when I was undergoing my chemo and radiation treatment. The day I completed my treatment I registered both of us (without telling her) to walk 60 miles. Dawn and I first walked in 2003. During 2006-2007 I was having extensive surgery. In 2008, my husband John walked for me for the first time. I was supporting cheering him and others from the sidelines, since I wasn’t cleared to walk yet. John has walked for me alone from 2008-2011. http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2014/PhiladelphiaEvent2014?px=3672255&pg=personal&fr_id=1863. I’m so proud to say that we have walked together since 2012!
Sharon and Dawn at the 2013 Philadelphia 3 Day Walk “PIt Stop”!
A Message from Sharon’s Sister, Dawn
It’s funny to think that when we were kids, Sharon and I couldn’t be in the same room together without trying to kill each other because now she is my best friend and I can’t imagine not having her in my life. That’s why her diagnosis hit me so hard. Your little sister is facing this nightmare and you can’t do anything to stop it. You just feel so helpless. Then I saw the commercial for the 3-Day and told Sharon about it. I thought it would be a great way to do something together to try and make a difference, but she was in the middle of her chemo treatments. Well apparently she thought it was a good idea too because when her treatments were done, she signed us both up and the rest as they say is history. She and I did two walks together before her 2nd diagnosis. We took time off from walking while Sharon began the 2nd round of her battle. Now the 3-Day is a real family affair. John, Jennie, Sharon and I walk and my mom and aunt volunteer as support staff. We have also become part of an even bigger “Pink Family” through the friendships we have formed participating in the walk. Our “pink peeps” as we call them are the most loving and generous people I have ever met. Their dedication to ending this disease warms my heart and I know that because of them, Sharon lives to fight another day. She charges forward with no hesitation to face every challenge that this disease throws at her. She never complains, never slows down, she just stares cancer right in the face and tells it to kiss her ass. I am so proud to call Sharon my sister. She is a true Pink Warrior. She is my hero and I love her very much!
Sharon, Her Sister Dawn and Mom Connie
I was finally cleared and have walked in 2012, 2013 and 2014. I was one of five women to give a speech in 2013 in Philadelphia. After a three step preparation process, I became an affiliate of the North Jersey Susan G. Komen. I speak as a survivor, spread awareness and provide ongoing support. http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2014/PhiladelphiaEvent2014?px=1226262&pg=personal&fr_id=1863 and…
if you would like to support Sharon you can donate to her fight to find a cure and read more about her story at http://www.the3day.org/goto/sharonslosarik
Sharon’s 2013 Philadelphia 3 Day Camp Speech:
My daughter Jennie contacted Komen after she wrote and gave a speech. Jennie has now walked and crewed and has done an enormous amount of fundraising to support the fight against breast cancer. http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2014/PhiladelphiaEvent2014?px=6946592&pg=personal&fr_id=1863
I am also active in the Pennsylvania Chapter of Breast Friends, an organization that provides support for breast and ovarian cancer to those who otherwise don’t have support. http://www.breastfriends.org/ and http://www.breastfriends.org/breast-cancer-charity/affiliates/pennsylvania/.
My Mom Connie and my sister Dawn also continually support me in my community involvement. Here are Dawn’s pages from her walks: 2014: http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2014/PhiladelphiaEvent2014?px=4183023&pg=personal&fr_id=1863 and 2015: http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2014/PhiladelphiaEvent2015?px=4183023&pg=personal&fr_id=1934
SF: Did you ever have “really bad days”?
Sharon: Yes, I remember three of them in particular. The three hardest days were definitely the day I lost my hair, the day I realized my daughter “gets it” and the day I had a doctor give up on me.
The hair day was really difficult because nobody really warns you. It is not a gradual thing it comes out in clumps and it hurts and it is horrible. I remember sitting there just pulling it out by the handful and I looked like that ratty doll from rug rats. My husband John said “That’s enough” and finally just buzzed it. Jennie was so sweet she was only 4, but she said “Don’t worry Mommy, you are beautiful on the inside so your hair doesn’t matter.” Oy that kid kills me but in a good way! John of course was already bald but a dear friend shaved his head for me and showed up at the Yankee game that night bald. He said, “Baby, it’s only hair… yours will grow back and so will mine.” I was speechless.
The next bad day was when Jennie was about 6. A friend from work had a heart attack and passed and I was getting ready to attend his wake. She looked at me and said, “What kind of cancer did your friend die from Mommy?” I said, “No baby, he had a problem with his heart.” Jennie replied, “Oh, he had cancer in his heart and that’s why he died.” In that moment I knew that she understood that what mommy had killed people and I cried the whole way to the wake. It’s one thing to know it yourself, it’s another to have your child know it. That part really hurts, she never remembers a time that mommy wasn’t sick, but at the same time it has given her such strength and compassion.
My other really bad day was when my physician told me she didn’t want to treat me because I had Stage 4 and was going to die so why would she waste her time on me. I left her office and wandered for blocks in NYC finding myself at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I sat down and lost it. Sobbing uncontrollably. A security guard got a priest but I was so upset I couldn’t even breathe or speak. They hit redial on my phone and luckily I had spoken to a friend who was an FDNY chief on the way into the city. He came lights and sirens to pick me up parked on the sidewalk, drove me to the nearest bar and lined up shots of Jameson’s I threw back a few, told him what happened, he did one himself and asked me her name. I did another and began to laugh. I knew if I gave up her name he was going to hurt her so I refused!
SF: Tell us about the IV pole story…
Sharon: When the cancer metastasized my poor husband was so upset. We hadn’t expected it but I pushed the doctor to biopsy “the probably nothing spot” on my lung, and what was supposed to be a “quick” procedure ended up a 4 inch lung resection with a chest tube. I was in the recovery room and John walked in and started to tear up. I looked at him and said, “Knock that off now, before I shove this IV pole up your *****, we beat it before we will beat it again.” The nurse looked at me and her mouth dropped, she asked, “Did you just threaten to shove that pole up that very large man’s ***?” I said , “yes I did and I will do the same to you if you don’t get me a wheel chair because I have to pee and I don’t do bed pans.” The nurses laughed so hard and we ended up having so much fun they pulled strings and got me a private room.
SF: How do you keep healthy?
Sharon: As far as keeping healthy I try to find a balance between healthy and fun. I don’t really deny myself “goodies” but I don’t over do it either. I walk as far as exercise goes, and I am careful around people who are sick or obvious germ hang outs. I also drive my doctor crazy sometimes but he has learned to trust that I know my body and I know my limits and has resigned himself that I am the only one allowed to set those limits.
SF: What are your coping strategies?
Sharon: Ok, so how I cope is easy, humor. I tend to laugh a lot! I never allowed cancer to interfere with my life, and my family never did either. I pushed through because I had a daughter and I knew she needed her mother. My dad lost his father when he was 7 and I wasn’t about to allow my daughter to face that because I knew how it had affected him even later in life. From the first diagnosis and every re-occurrence my question has been “OK, so how do we attack this the hardest.”
It’s funny, my conscious self is fine. I really handle it well but at one point I started to have night terrors. Apparently deep down inside, my mind was not laughing! I spoke to a therapist and my doctor finally ended up giving me some medication to help me sleep for anxiety. I am not big on meds but learned that it is sometimes better to take what you need and not be ashamed of it.
SF: Where did you inherit your “fierceness quotient”?
Sharon: I think I learned how to fight from my Grandmother Jennie and my Aunt Kay. They fought the same fight but we never really knew they were sick, and both beat odds they shouldn’t have at the time. Some days you could tell it was a “bad” day but they still always put us first. My dad remembered my grandmother telling them, “You lost your dad, you won’t lose me,” and she lived, she just lived. I remember my Aunt Kay went in the hospital two months before my wedding and they didn’t expect her to ever come home. She laughed at the doctor and said, “I promised Sharon and John I would bake cookies for their wedding.” She made 50 trays with her arm so swollen from lymphodema we thought we would have to cut her dress the day of the wedding, but somehow she woke up, no swelling, color in her cheeks and ate better that day then she had in over 6 months. We couldn’t keep her off the dance floor. It’s funny whenever I wanted to feel bad or say “I can’t” I would look at the picture of her dancing at my wedding and say “Hell yeah you can,” and I just did.
SF: Do you have motto or mantra?
Sharon: YES! I always say my motto is “Heaven doesn’t want me and Hell is afraid I am going to take over so really where am I going to go?”
Thank you so much, dear Sharon, and it is an honor to celebrate you as our Extraordinary Person sharing your story!