When Roberta Lombardi was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2016, she had no idea her journey would result in a new organization, Infinite Strength, -- the foundation she created whose mission is to make medical treatments more accessible for all breast cancer patients. The non-profit group is also dedicated to helping Smilow Cancer Hospital patients offset costs not covered by insurance, which can make all the difference in the healing process, both physically and emotionally.
“Last Thanksgiving, my hair was growing back after having lost it all during chemotherapy, and I was beginning to regain my positive attitude, much of which had left me during my cancer treatment.”
“I started taking a look back on what I had been through on my cancer journey, I realized that I was able to afford many extras without having to think about them. Like wigs and head scarfs, costs of traveling to treatment, even parking, none of which are covered by insurance.”
“It suddenly dawned on me that not only was I blessed to come through my illness, but I was blessed to be able to go through treatment without having it effect my family financially. I began reflecting on the cancer patients I had met who were struggling, not only physically and emotionally, but also financially. And how many were not able to afford treatments, to say nothing about paying for the extras.”
Roberta, who has had careers as a corporate event planner and a cooking and entertaining instructor, discovered her own breast lump while doing a breast self-exam. She went to her gynecologist and within a few days was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, stage 1A. But her cancer type -- triple positive (estrogen receptor positive, progesterone receptor positive, HER2-positive) -- tends to grow and spread faster than others, is particularly aggressive, and requires additional treatment. The doctors at Smilow recommended a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction followed by chemotherapy and chemo related treatment.
“I can’t say enough about the care I received at Smilow. The nurses, besides being very professional, are so kind, always thinking about their patients,” noted Roberta.
“I did ok with the surgery, but chemotherapy was a different story for me. I lost my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. My face was bloated so not only was I not feeling like myself, but I also didn’t look like myself. And I didn’t want to go out in public, not even to the grocery store. That’s when I needed extra emotional support to finish treatment and begin the healing process both physically and emotionally.
“My husband of nineteen years was so supportive. He was amazing, coming with me to every treatment. It was very hard on my daughters, Ava, Isabella, and Mia (now 16, 14, and 12). Kids naturally have a difficult time seeing their parents sick. I tried to keep our routines the same as much as possible so they would not be scared, but it was hard. I couldn’t drive, so my husband would have to pick up the girls. I was often tired but I was a lucky stay-at-home mom, so I could rest while they were in school. I also have a large supportive family, including nieces and nephews who rearranged their schedules to help us out. And many good friends who would visit and bring meals to our home, even when I didn’t want to see anybody.”
Another hard time for many patients is when they have their final treatment. And Roberta was no exception.
“You are so used to being sick,” she explains. “Your whole routine is going to the hospital every week and having your chemo. The entire treatment team is around to answer your questions, to help and encourage you. All of a sudden, when your treatment ends, you lose all that medical support. Even though I was happy to have finished my chemo, I found that I was not sure how to get back into my life without worrying about my health. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out the cancer was still there. That’s when I realized I had to focus on how lucky I was and be positive in my mindset, because I believe there is a direct correlation between the mind helping to heal the body. I realized I could help others with a breast cancer diagnosis have a more positive treatment experience, and that is when I began to form Infinite Strength. This non-profit has been the silver lining to my cancer journey.”
The inaugural event for Roberta’s organization Infinite Strength raised $50,000. Half of the money has been earmarked for Paxman Scalp Cooling, a process that can freeze hair follicles during treatment to reduce hair loss. The other $25,000 is for funding basic extras that patients need, such as parking, head coverings, wigs, and mastectomy bras, paying for childcare, etc., using a protocol created by The Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital.
An Evening in Pink will be an annual event, and in addition, the non-profit will hold a family-friendly event in October with a hoedown theme. Roberta has lots of other thoughts about needs patients have during cancer treatment. She envisions an online community that would help patients deal with the many unknowns during treatment. And she continues to look for ways to encourage new patients. Roberta tells of her experience of one of her last days of chemo, “There was a patient sitting across from me, getting her third chemo infusion. She had lost her hair and was not doing well. So, on my way out, I stopped and said to her, ‘Not so long ago, I was where you are. It is hard to imagine you will ever leave this behind and get back to your life. I know it’s hard to believe, but you will get through it…you are stronger than you realize.’”
Roberta’s encouraging outlook – and her work at her new foundation -- mean she will be that inspiring, reassuring voice for many years to come.