Three sisters and their mother beat breast cancer together

Three sisters and their mother beat breast cancer together
Eva Williams, Karen Connolly, Martha Overton, Juliana Armusewicz and Dr. Karen Kostroff. (Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

Flashing matching bracelets engraved with personalized and inspired words such as “blessings,” “sisters,” and “soul sister,” the Overton sisters and their mother returned to the Northwell Cancer Institute’s Monter Cancer Center to celebrate their personal triumphs over the disease with the breast surgeon who treated each of them over a 25-year period.

Martha Overton, age 80, and her three daughters, all of whom live in Hampton Bays, have spent the past quarter century doing battle with breast cancer. Now cancer-free, Ms. Overton and her daughters – Karen Connolly, Juliana Armusewicz, and Eva Williams – chose to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness month by speaking publicly about their individual approaches to facing the reality of living with cancer. They also expressed thanks to Dr. Karen Kostroff, chief of Breast Surgery at Northwell Health, who shepherded each of them through the life-changing process.

“It’s been a great honor to work with three generations of women in this family and to guide them through this journey,” said Kostroff..

Overton was diagnosed in 1998, at the age of 59, with atypical pre-cancer cells. She underwent a lumpectomy and all was well until 2012, when at the age of 74, she learned she had invasive right breast cancer, for which she was treated with bilateral mastectomy. Again, in 2016, at the age of 78, she was diagnosed with an invasive cancer cyst of the chest wall. She was treated with chemotherapy and radiation, and is now considered cancer-free.

Her husband, Richard, died in 2015 due to BRAC II positive pancreatic cancer. As Kostroff pointed out, the BRCA genetic mutation can be passed down from the father, which proved to be the case with Armusewicz and her daughter, Courtney.

“I get my strength from my three daughters, and from their father,” Overton said. “It’s because of them that I continue to move forward.”

Connolly is the eldest of the three sisters. In 1993, at the age of 32, Ms. Connolly was treated for mastitis after suffering a miscarriage. After two weeks a biopsy revealed she was living with stage four inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and very aggressive form of the disease. Connolly was given just three months to live when, as she said, “she decided to go for a second opinion and was lucky enough to find Kostroff.”

Kostroff recommended aggressive treatment with high-dose chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy, as well as experimental stem cell transplant, radiation and Tamoxifen. Declared cancer-free in 1993, Connolly decided that outreach and compassion would help her through her journey.

“I could have been your wife, mother, daughter or sister,” she said. “If not for Dr. Kostroff, I wouldn’t be here today. I advocate for others to get a second opinion. I feel my diagnosis was so that I could pave the way for my family, my friends and others who might need advice during the difficult time of a diagnosis.”

Armusewicz was diagnosed with stage one right breast cancer following a routine mammogram in 1994 at the age of 32. Then, in 2003, at the age of 41, she was again diagnosed with cancer in her left breast.

The “advocate” of the family, she believes that keeping pressure on the community about the importance of education and awareness is her particular strength.

“You have to be your own advocate when you get this diagnosis,” she said. “If you don’t like the answers you are getting from one doctor, find another one. You have to take your health into your own hands – and stay strong.”

Armusewicz also spoke about the bravery of her daughter, Courtney, who tested BRCA II positive at the age of 25 in 2015. Courtney has undergone a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery as a preventive measure.

“She is incredibly brave,” said her mother.

Williams is the “baby” of the sisters. At the age of 36, Williams was diagnosed with ductal invasive cancer of the right breast. Her approach to wellness involves maintaining a positive attitude and learning to experience joy each day of her life.

“You ask yourself – why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to us again as a family?” Ms. Williams said. “But, we are warriors. I believe we must stay positive by finding joy in every day events.”

Having treated the Overton women for more than 25 years, Kostroff was particularly proud to show off her bracelet with “soul sister” engraved on the surface. According to Overton, the family’s matriarch, “Everyone in this family loves Dr. Kostroff. She is like a daughter to me and a sister to my girls. She is a part of us.”

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