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Life Is What MattersOctober 21, 2013 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent
In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Travel Agent magazine annually profiles a member of the travel industry who has taken on the challenge of breast cancer. In this issue, we speak with Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, president of Fischer Travel Enterprises in New York City, who battled the disease in 2001. Here is her story of how she faced the obstacles head on and learned to count on the support of friends and colleagues to guide her through her medical treatment.
The proceeds from the ads supporting our Pink Issue feature will be donated to Stacy’s cause of choice, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cancer Research Fund of Dr. Maria Theodoulou.
When Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal went for a routine gynecological check-up in 2001, she was feeling fine and fit. Under the age of 40 at the time, Stacy, the president of Fischer Travel Enterprises, known worldwide for making miracles happen for affluent travelers who want only the very best in vacation options, had no reason to think she was going to have a bad day. In fact, waiting for her gynecologist appointment for more than an hour was downright annoying.
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2001. She completed her final radiation treatment that November.
“I’m thinking, ‘I really shouldn’t be here. I should be working,’ ” she tells Travel Agent magazine. She waited it out and eventually got in to see the doctor. It was during her breast exam that she heard the words that made her world stand still.
“I think you should see a surgeon to see what this is,” her physician told her. She had detected something high on her chest wall and was so concerned with her findings she wanted Stacy to see a surgeon immediately. In turn, the surgeon was so concerned she sent Stacy to radiologist for same-day testing.
The experience was surreal to Stacy, whose extraordinary day-to-day activities usually involve making the travel dreams of mega-millionaires and billionaires come true. Need to take over a hotel for a special birthday party and fly in 50 of his closest friends? No problem. Require insider access to a museum, a store, a designer’s studio, or a family vacation to trump any other family vacation that’s ever been taken? Stacy was on it, having learned at the knee of her father and luxury travel industry icon, Bill Fischer.
And yet here she was, wondering nervously if what her doctor and her surgeon had felt was simply some type of calcification that she’d read about. Her pondering ended quickly enough when her surgeon called her into her office, where her test images were displayed on the screen.
“You have breast cancer,” she said.
Four blunt words. Terrifying enough in their own right, but there was more.
“We have to do a biopsy, but it’s pretty telling from looking at these slides. I would recommend that we schedule a surgery and that you meet with the plastic surgeon. We have to get this going right away.”
Stacy sat with her husband, Richard, by her side grasping to absorb it all. Her mind rushed forward. “I’m supposed to go skiing in six weeks for my family holiday. Will I be able to go?”
The response was curt. “You’d better cancel your trip.”
Stacy recalls that she couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of what was being relayed to her. But she knew one thing. She wasn’t going any further with this particular physician.
“There was just something about her that was so cold and calculating. It was so matter of fact,” she tells Travel Agent.
“I think I need a second opinion,” she told the surgeon.
The stunned couple went to Fischer Travel’s office to deliver the news to her father, Bill, which Stacy recalls was particularly difficult; they had lost her mother to pancreatic cancer six years prior. Stacy stepped into the ladies’ room to compose herself. While she was gone, Richard had quietly told her staff about her bad news.
“I walked in and everyone was hysterically crying,” she remembers.
As she looked at everyone, Stacy says she reached inward and found an inner strength that would carry her all the way through to her recovery.
"I looked around and said, ‘I’m going to be fine. I know that I’m going to be fine. This is breast cancer. It’s not pancreatic cancer like my mom had or something much more serious. I know that I’m going to find the right people and I’m going to be fine.’ ”
The fight was on. With the vision of keeping her family and the team at Fischer Travel strong, she went on a mission to find the best hospital and the best doctors and surgeons who would help her beat the cancer.
Stacy turned to clients and friends, telling them her story and asking for assistance. Through this dynamic network, she received a call from Evelyn Lauder, who at the time was establishing the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Stacy Fishcer-Rosenthal used this family portrait of husband RIchard Rosenthal, their son Max and herself for a party invitation sent to friends to celebrate the end of her treatment in February 2002.
Lumpectomy: 'Dress Rehearsal'
Through Lauder’s recommendation, Stacy was able to go to the head of breast surgery at Sloan-Kettering to have a lumpectomy.
As she lay in recovery, Richard came in to be with her, but she could see in his eyes something was wrong.
“Is everything okay?” she asked him. “Well, we just have to wait for the doctor to come in,” he responded, taking her hand.
The findings were not good. “We didn’t realize that there’s a lot more, it’s much more invasive than we had thought. We’re going to have to take your breasts,” the surgeon explained.
Stacy’s first reaction, which she now realizes was naïve, was, “Well, why didn’t you just do that while I was in there?” She was told such a process requires plastic surgery. It requires more operating time. The patient has to consent to it.
“You’ll see a breast plastic surgeon. We’ll figure out the timing and you’ll come back,” he told her.
Stacy remained calm, telling herself, “Okay. This is bigger than I thought but it’s okay. This was a dress rehearsal. I got through that surgery okay.”
It was all so dire, yet the next step set a somewhat lighter tone for the rest of her battle. When she and her husband went to the plastic surgeon. Richard was taken aback by the way the man simply walked into the room and began examining his wife’s breasts.
“My husband was sitting there and said, ‘Um, excuse me, doctor, this is what you do all day? Do you know how many dinners it cost me to get to do that? I’d like to meet your wife.’ ” Stacy laughs at the memory, noting that the off-hand rapport that evolved from that introduction launched a friendship with the surgeon that has remained strong over the years.
“We went to dinner with him two weeks ago. We have become friends with him. That sense of humor totally broke the ice; many people don’t cross that line. You’re in such a serious place and it’s such a serious situation,” she says.
Stacy still had to decide whether to have one breast surgically removed or to play it safe and remove both to lower the odds of the cancer recurring.
“I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy because I never wanted to be back in that position again,” she says.
There was more to endure. When she and Richard went to get her pathology report in March, they learned that Stacy would need to have both chemotherapy and radiation after she went through her mastectomy. Such an ordeal would be enough difficulty for one family, but her father-in-law, whose health had been steadily failing, was now gravely ill. After she and her husband listened to her report, Richard went to Long Island to be with his mother; his father passed away that very afternoon.
The news of the need for chemotherapy hit Stacy hard. “That is the one thing that frightened me the most. Seeing my mom being so sick through that process. It was just, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’ll do surgery. I’ll do anything really, just don’t want to have to do chemotherapy.’ ”
Stacy also had to find an oncologist; she asked some close friends for a referral and got the name of a great physician, Dr. Maria Theodoulou, who wasn’t accepting new patients. A friend made a call on her behalf. At 10 p.m. that night, Stacy got a call. It was Dr. Theodoulou.
“She said, ‘Of course, I’ll take you. Of course, I’ll manage your care.’ I just thought, ‘She’s calling me at home at 10:00 at night? Wow, this is an extraordinary woman.’ She just listened. She became my therapist from the minute I spoke to her. When she asked me how I was doing, I told her there was a lot going on in our lives, and that I was really scared about the chemo.”
From that moment on, Stacy felt that in Dr. Theodoulou she had discovered her guardian angel who would get her through her illness. “She continues to be a friend and somebody I really love and trust,” she says. “I still do my follow-ups with her,” says Stacy. “She can be an alarmist. She is definitely aggressive in her way but I feel that’s what really saved my life.” Case in point: Dr. Theodoulou had Stacy in trials to test a dose-density chemo treatment every two weeks (at a time when the norm was to get chemo every three weeks) and in conjunction receive an injection that would help build up her blood count while protecting her against infections. The pros? Chemo would be completed much more quickly. She would still lose her hair, but it would grow back in a shorter period of time.
The cons? Richard Rosenthal had to give his wife an injection every night.
Today, this chemotherapy process has become the norm. “That’s what they’re doing now for all patients who can handle it,” says Stacy. “That’s also why Sloan-Kettering is so great; they are on to so many trials. You can elect to be in one or not. At least they’re experimenting to figure out what the best course should be.”
She also continued working every day, even after chemo treatments, despite being warned that she’d only want to go home to crawl into the bed. Stacy learned to take everyone’s opinions of how to proceed lightly.
“I think you have to be careful because everybody you meet has a story. Sometimes their stories are positive. Sometimes they didn’t have a good experience. I think you have to create your own path. Unless I really felt sick, I didn’t want it to keep me down.” For that reason, Stacy remained social; after her very first treatment she attended a luncheon a close friend was hosting to raise money for a cause and she’d still go out with friends in the evening if she felt up to it.
There were indeed times she didn’t feel that great and simply forged ahead. What kept her going was having a team at Fischer Travel that she could depend on. “They would take on the work, whatever I wasn’t completing. Anne Ackerman and Dee Branciforte [vice presidents of Fischer Travel] have always been my right hands. They’ve been here for 21 and 20 years respectively and there was never a question about getting the job done. It was always, ‘Just go do what you need to do,’ or ‘We’ll be with you.’ The clients never felt at all that they were not taken care of.”
Stacy also preferred having work as a distraction all the while, being open about what she was going through with colleagues and clients. “Everybody’s affected by this disease in one sense or another, whether personally, or through family or friends,” she says. What she recalls the most about that time was the amount of support and love and gratitude she received from everybody around her. She never went to a chemo treatment by herself and her friends accompanied her to all her tests. Following the four-month chemotherapy program, her father, Bill, went with her for her radiation simulation, which was a very long test.
It had been a long, trying year, and then it was September 11, 2001. Richard Rosenthal was in London the morning the Twin Towers were hit. Stacy had been to an acupuncturist earlier that morning to cope with the bone pain she was enduring. When she got to the Fischer Travel office on Manhattan’s East Side, she realized she couldn’t get to her son Max’s school, miles away on the Upper West Side, because traffic was at a standstill in the paralyzed city. Stacy called her cousin and together they walked uptown to retrieve seven-year-old Max. As she and her family dealt with the 9/11 aftermath the following week, they got news that the house they visited every weekend in Connecticut, the home of a very good friend, had burned to the ground.
It was at this point that Stacy realized the impact all the trauma was having on Max. “He wound up being fine. We were very verbal and communicative and we got through,” she said. But perhaps most upsetting was the realization that people would say insensitive things to her small son about her illness. He told her later that one of his friends’ mother had taken him for ice cream and told him his mother probably wouldn’t be around the following year. Another woman, who had very bad arthritis, said to Stacy, “Now we’re both chronically ill parents.” “I don’t see myself as chronically ill at all. I’m getting through this and I’m going to be fine,” Stacy firmly told the woman.
In November, Stacy completed her radiation treatments, drawing to a conclusion a long process that has kept her cancer free for 12 years.
It was a marvelous success; however, Stacy recalls that her illness had its moments. “It was difficult and tiring. Toward the end, during my radiation when I went every day, I got tired. But I felt that for my father, my husband and for my son, I needed to really show them that I could be strong and get through this. I worried about them. Again, I could never have done this without the support of my friends and my family,” she says.
Looking back, she says there were positives in 2001. A social worker who visited while Stacy was undergoing chemotherapy had recommended a support group comprising other women going through the same thing. Stacy went and met “incredible women who are still my friends.” The group was varied, some women were feeling very negative and who tended to bring everyone down. In response, Stacy and a few others decided to rally and become extremely positive. “We would take our wigs or our scarves off and we’d laugh at our bald heads. We’d laugh about how cold you get without your hair and just about things that people can’t relate to. How it was being with your husband after having this surgery and how intimacy was. It was really about being able to be open in a space that you felt very comfortable and safe in.”
After they completed chemotherapy the small group took a field trip to Canyon Ranch “to celebrate life and each other. “They had spa treatments and went hiking. They just let go and had a dance party, which they even took to the pool. “Everybody was feeling great,” says Stacy.
By February 2002, she was officially through her treatment; more reason to celebrate. She told Richard and Max she wanted to have a party to thank everyone, including doctors, friends and nurses, who had supported her and who had helped her get through her cancer.
Max and Richard shaved their heads in her honor and a family friend came over to take their picture, which would serve as the photo on the invitation, which read: “Let’s all celebrate life! Please join the Rosenbalds as we let our hair down.” The date of the party was 2-2-02. “I loved everything about it,” Stacy says, glowing and laughing at the memory of it all.
A year or two later, Richard and Max ended up posing in a print ad campaign for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation that sought to convey how a woman’s breast cancer affects the men in her lives. In a solemn photo of the two, the ad, which appeared in many consumer publications, read: “Breast cancer doesn’t just affect women.”
Laughing now, Stacy recalls being at The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Georgia, when a woman, seeing the ad in the magazine, looked up to see Richard in front of her. She recognized him immediately.
“So your wife died?” she asked.
“No. My wife is having a spa treatment next door,” he responded.
Stacy and Richard continued to support the cause to bring awareness to breast cancer, serving on panels and boards for Evelyn Lauder's charitable organization.
Two years following her recovery, Stacy and her friends trained for the 60-mile Revlon walk, which entails walking 20 miles a day for three consecutive days. “We put together an amazing group of women that wanted to do this and raise money. The name of the group was the Twisted Blister Sisters.” That first year, the event, which was starting at Bear Mountain in upstate New York, was rained out, providing quite the challenge because of the number of people who had assembled and who had planned to sleep outside. The following year, the event was held in New York City and the weather cooperated. Stacy and her group slept near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge one night; Richard, Max and her friends brought them all sorts of food, cupcakes included. It was a success all around. The Twisted Blister Sisters raised a lot of money.
Having breast cancer changed Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, a fact she readily admits. And she says she met some incredible people along the way that she never would have met otherwise.
“Cancer has made me a better person. Cancer has allowed me to focus on how precious life is and how important your friends and family are.”
Another lesson she learned was to put the concept of luxury travel in the proper light. “We deal with a lot of very entitled clients. When you’re bald and you’re going through this and someone’s saying they didn’t like the hairdresser you set up for them on their vacation, you have to take a deep breath because you want to say, ‘Really? Where’s your perspective in life?’ ”
Instead, she says she would just grin and bear it.
Prior to her cancer, one of her biggest worries was that her son would go to swimming and then not dry off properly before getting dressed and going back to class. “That was what was on my mind at the time,” she says. “Then something like this happens and it puts things into perspective.”
Stacy has a much better balance in her life now and a much greater appreciation for her husband.
“He was really there for me a thousand percent. He never, ever looked at me funny or judged me for the way I looked or made me feel inadequate, or made me feel non-sexy.” All the more appreciated since dealing with body image during such an experience is difficult.
“You live with it every day when you look in the mirror.”
What matters now? “As long as I have my life, that’s what is most important,” Stacy tells us.
Anne says she garnered much of her emotional strength from having seen Stacy go through her experience. “Stacy set the bar pretty high and she shared a lot of her experiences with me.”
Anne Ackerman of Fischer Travel
Breast cancer returned to the Fischer Travel Enterprises family last year, when vice president Anne Ackerman received her diagnosis. She, like Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, president of Fischer Travel, had gone for her regular gynecological checkup and mammogram. All seemed well but then Anne got a call back for more testing. Her physician had seen “a little fuzziness” on her mammography test films.
“That’s never a good thing when they call you. It’s not like when you get a letter in the mail telling you everything’s fine,” she says.
When Anne went to see her doctor the morning of August 15, 2012, she was told there were definitely signs of breast cancer. Such moments are always dizzying, but reality set in sharply when she heard the nurse in her doctor’s office battling with Anne’s insurance company to get an MRI approved. “She was saying to the people on the other end, ‘But she could be the start of family history!’”
“Those words still ring in my head, ‘the start of a family history.’ We don’t have a history of breast cancer in the family. Was I going to be the start of it? I’m not married, I don’t have children, but I have a sister and a niece.”
From the moment she left her doctor’s office, Anne says that Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal and Dee Branciforte, also a vice president at Fischer Travel and a long-time colleague, were her right and left arms in helping her get through everything involved with her diagnosis. She went to work and gave Stacy an account of what transpired at the doctor’s. Stacy promptly closed her office door and jumped on the phone to line up the roster of physicians she had used during her own bout with breast cancer.
It all meant Anne didn’t have to make a single phone call or a single decision regarding which physicians she would use; she had at the ready the A-team, including the breast surgeon and oncologist Stacy had used.
“I knew I was in good hands,” says Anne.
The path to meeting the challenge of breast cancer began. Anne went for a biopsy and an MRI. “Finally you sit down with the breast surgeon and you talk about dates. My cancer was different. It wasn’t a lump. It wasn’t going to be found by actual touching. It was what they called lobular; it grows as a finger would. You couldn’t actually feel it. It was very subtle, but the word they used was ‘invasive.’”
Anne also had to decide whether to get a bilateral mastectomy; she opted to do it.
“There was no way I wanted to do this again. It’s not a decision you come to easily but still you make it. There’s a practicality to it and I tend to be very practical.” Also for practical reasons, she decided to get a PET scan to determine whether she had cancer anywhere else in her body. Anne had lost a dear friend who had had breast cancer and then brain cancer. “I didn’t want to think something else was going on that wasn’t detected because they were only looking at one part of my body.” When her PET scan came back clear, Anne was ready to reveal her diagnosis to her colleagues in the office.
At a staff meeting one Friday morning, she asked everyone around the table to hold hands.
“I told them that when I was a little girl, we had what we called a gentleman’s farm where we had horses and an electric fence. There was a game we played where everyone held hands. The first person would touch the fence and the electric current would go through each of us. That morning, I had everybody hold hands and I said, ‘I want to pass the energy around. I really need everybody’s energy because I, too, have been diagnosed with breast cancer.’”
The support was especially important to Anne. “I spend so much of my time here; this is my family,” she says. “If I was going to go through something, I had to know that I had everybody’s support and strength and positive energy.”
The next step was to tell her parents, which was especially difficult, since she lives in New Jersey and they live in upstate Binghamton, NY, and they hadn’t had any lead-up to her news. As a family they absorbed it all and helped Anne move toward the process of healing. They, along with her sister, came down to be with their daughter when she had her double mastectomy, which took place on October 22, 2012.
Anne had planned to be out of the office for two weeks, having been advised by some that after surgery she would be extremely weak. Her plan was to lie in bed and recover, with her parents and sister on hand to prepare meals for her. Instead, the morning after she came home from the hospital, she woke up, got dressed, and went down to watch TV with everyone.
“It’s not about being weak; it’s about trying to find strength. I didn’t want my mom and dad to worry about me. And I just didn’t see myself lying in bed. I didn’t feel bad. Surgery takes something but it didn’t take the life out of me.”
There was still a bit of drama during that time; Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast and incurred severe damage on most of the areas in its wide path. Remarkably, Anne’s residence didn’t lose power.
As she moved toward recovery, Anne did have a setback when an infection set in and doctors had to surgically remove the expander that had been put in her left breast after the mastectomy.
“It was three steps forward, one step back. I was not expecting to have that difficulty,” she says. “One thing I’ve learned is you don’t put clocks and calendars into effect when you have breast cancer. Whatever happens happens.”
A huge comfort to Anne during this time was that she had the same oncologist that Stacy had had, Dr. Maria Theodoulou at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
“What is extraordinary is that she answers every e-mail and she will call you at home at night. She’ll call when she can talk to you, not when she’s got 30 seconds and in a rush. She knows if you’re having a test done and how important it is that you have the results.”
Anne’s chemotherapy treatment ran from December through the end of March; she had what is considered a lighter form of chemo since there hadn’t been a sign of cancer in her lymph nodes.
For each appointment, a friend or colleague insisted they go with her. She opted to do chemo on Friday mornings and come into the office afterward.
“Work was the greatest distraction. I think a lot of people can easily go down a different path; they go home and they sit and obsess about how bad it can be. The clients we have are sympathetic but they still want what they want and that’s okay because it was good for me not to have to think about everything that I had to go through. You can truly obsess over it.”
Having Sloan-Kettering as the venue where she received treatment helped her mindset quite a bit. “It is probably one of the most fantastic facilities to be in if you have to deal with any kind of disease. They smile at you when you walk in the door and they smile at you when they’re putting a needle in your arm and they smile at you when you’re sick. Even the guy who watches the revolving door is pleasant. It’s such an unusual hospital experience.” She also took advantage of the integrated medicine options available to her at Sloan-Kettering, choosing to take yoga, get healing massages and receive acupuncture treatments.
Rather than doing group therapy, Anne relied on Stacy and Dee and other friends who were familiar with what she was going through. “It’s different when you don’t have a husband or a son because that gives you a different perspective. I live for my friends and for my family,” she says.
She forged ahead and faced each challenge as it came, including giving herself shots during chemo to keep her blood count up. “I remember the first day, I had to decide whether to give myself the shots or come all the way into the city to have someone else do it. You look at the syringe and you say, ‘Okay, this is what it’s going to be.’” For Anne, it was again about being practical.
Although she was going through the lighter form of chemo, she did lose some of her hair as well as her eyelashes and her eyebrows thinned out a bit. She opted not to be very public with the fact she was going for chemo with her entire office, but her little group at work knew what she was experiencing. “I didn’t make an announcement because I felt like there’s something very personal about doctor’s appointments and treatment. And again, I just want work to be my distraction. I didn’t want it to be their distraction.”
Anne says she garnered much of her emotional strength from having seen Stacy go through her experience.
“Stacy set the bar pretty high and she shared a lot of her experiences with me so that I knew what was going on,” she said. “I remember her sharing journals and scars, and that’s hard. From a very young age, women are taught that our bodies are what we are. All of a sudden [with breast cancer] that something that was so important is taken from you. It changes how you think about yourself, how other people look at you.”
Anne says the natural reaction to that is to compensate in ways that you can control. “You try to dress well. You put makeup on and try not to stay home and crawl up in a ball in bed. You think that if you do everything positive, most people won’t know. You wake up with it every morning and go to sleep with it every night.”
Anne, who is now close to wrapping up her surgeries and treatments, says that it’s hard to believe a year has gone by since her diagnosis. She regrets that it’s not all over by now, that having the additional surgery to deal with the infection set her back a few months.
“As I said, I don’t put any time limits or time frames on anything anymore because you just don’t know. And you really maximize every opportunity, that’s for sure.”
One certainty she has had during her recovery is the support of a dear, dear friend: “Stacy opened every door for me, she walked down every hallway. I just followed. I didn’t ever really think about which door to walk into. She’s completely kept me on track,” says Anne.