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Fighting cancer a second time, Laurel woman shares her story

04/27/2018 6:00 AM |

Melanie McEvoy Zuhoski of Laurel sat at the Riverhead Best Buy, waiting while her new cellphone was set up. She’d lost her old phone, probably on the train as she traveled east from the city, where she has a fundraising and event planning business. 

The new phone immediately lit up with voicemails, two of them from a nurse at then-Beth Israel Medical Center in Union Square, where she’d gone the previous day for her very first mammogram.

There was no issue with getting the mammogram itself, she said.

“I was very excited,” she said. “It was like this rite of passage.”

The first of those voicemails was the doctor’s office telling her she needed to come back.

The second said: “We really need you to come back in.”

Before she knew it, Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski was sent for two biopsies and then found herself meeting with a breast surgeon who reviewed all of her possible treatment outcomes.

“In two hours’ time I went from being fine to being on the cancer floor,” she said.

She later underwent a mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

That all occurred 2010, when Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski was 40.

Now, at 48, she is in the midst of treatment for a second breast cancer diagnosis.

Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski will share her experience Friday at the North Fork Breast Health Coalition’s fourth annual Pink Pearl Gala, an annual fundraiser that was her idea.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the nonprofit organization, which returns all funds raised to locals diagnosed with breast cancer. It offers grants, outreach and free programs that she took part in, including free yoga classes, massage therapy, reflexology and support groups. Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski joined the coalition’s board around 2012 and now serves as vice president.

Shari Einhorn of News 12 Long Island will host the event, which calls for festive pink attire and pearls. Information can be found at northforkbreasthealth.org.

“Melanie’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” said her husband, Greg Zuhoski, who had been dating her for about two months at the time of her initial diagnosis.

“I love my wife and I would do anything for her,” he said, adding that he knows to let her vent when she needs to.

He remembers that a “food train” — people stopping by with meals — kept coming while she was in recovery in 2010.

“We’re very lucky to live in a community like this,” Mr. Zuhoski said.

In addition to her parents, Roberta Passalacqua and Tom McEvoy, Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski’s support system includes friends like Regina Calcaterra, who she’s known for close to 20 years.

Ms. Calcaterra also spoke of her friend’s positivity, calling her an eternal optimist.

“Anyone who knows Melanie loves her and she brings sunshine into everyone’s life who knows her,” she said.

Ms. Calcaterra noted that as her friend undergoes treatment, she opted to dye her naturally blonde hair hot pink, signifying breast cancer awareness. She added that Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski has always loved that color — and is someone known not to shy away from sparkles.

“When the person who shines the most and shares her sparkle all of a sudden is affected by cancer again, we need to remember that we need to be the ones who bring sparkle into her life,” Ms. Calcaterra said.

There’s a medicinal side to treatment, but also a psychological side, Ms. Calcaterra said, for which a support system is responsible.

For many breast cancer survivors, the five-year mark is important. At the time of her initial diagnosis, most anti-cancer drugs post-surgery were taken for five years, said Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski. Today, she noted, doctors may recommend them for seven to 10 years.

“It was absolutely a big deal for me,” Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski, who at the five-year mark decided with her doctor to go off the medication, based on test results.

Over time, however, things in her body changed. Her 2010 biopsy had left a red spot on her chest. It grew over time and both she and the experts thought it was a keloid — a scar.

“This last year, it started to really change,” she said. “It got bigger, it got shiny, it got itchy — on the inside. And it got scaly. It felt hot to the touch.”

It was the size of a nickel, she said.

In December, her oncologist recommended she see a new breast doctor about it. During a January biopsy, that physician also thought it was a keloid.

A week later, Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski received a voicemail that her PET scan had been approved. She hadn’t heard anything about another scan, so she decided to walk in to the doctor’s office and find out.

“I am so sorry to have to tell you this,” a nurse there told her, “but it came back.”

This time, the cancer was more aggressive and had metastasized to two lymph nodes, Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski explained. She underwent surgery in February and is currently undergoing radiation treatment. She also takes monthly injections, which are daunting, as she doesn’t like needles, and will later undergo chemotherapy as the “icing on the cake.”

Last week, she completed half of her 33 scheduled radiation treatments. She said she’d recently begun to feel their effects in the form of fatigue.

“It’s a weird feeling for me,” she said. “I just stop.”

For someone like Ms. McEvoy Zuhoski, who’s generally upbeat and on the go, that’s tough.

But she reminds herself that’s it’s normal and that she needs to take time for herself to rest.

So, as she did before, she’ll  lie on a couch in her sunroom looking out onto her yard, which backs up to Husing Pond Preserve, her “solace.” She’ll watch the birds and listen to nature — birds chirping and horses at Highwind Farms nearby.

“You need to be OK with taking the time that you need to recover in the way you need to recover,” she said.

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