Wife, mother, survivor: Morristown resident Deborah Woodbury finds strength in family

by Aaron Morrison

DAILY RECORD • MORRISTOWN THIS WEEK • September 29, 2010 (Link no longer available)

For many breast cancer survivors, the race to health begins at diagnosis. Morristown resident Deborah Woodbury, in contrast, endured a six-month marathon of medical exams before receiving an official diagnosis.

It all began with a routine mammogram in September 2008, which Woodbury thought had gone fine.

Not exactly fine, she discovered later.

Woodbury was called in for a second mammogram in October. Then came a needle biopsy in November. After that, a more serious surgical biopsy in February, which finally confirmed she had stage 0 breast cancer.

“That whole time nobody wants to talk about cancer. That’s what I learned in that first phone call,” said the 52-year-old retired lawyer and mother of two, who now runs her own interior decorating business. “I didn’t have a lump or signs of cancer whatsoever.”

She was lucky, they told her, to have been diagnosed at such an early stage. Woodbury said she didn’t feel lucky.

Stage 0 breast cancer, or ductal carcinoma in situ, is typically a noninvasive form of the cancer that requires minimally invasive treatment.

In Woodbury’s case, doctors were recommending a full mastectomy of her one breast. Opting for such a physically altering procedure would allow her to avoid radiation, but she still didn’t feel lucky.

“The breast surgeon started telling me how she was going to do it. I stopped her,” Woodbury remembers. “I told her, ‘Before you tell me how, you have to tell me why.’ ”

“I still don’t get why I’m so lucky but I’m losing a body part. You’re telling me you’re cutting it off, but I’m lucky? I don’t get it.”

Doctors said that by the time they had removed each affected section of the breast, Woodbury wouldn’t have much of it left. It was better to remove the whole thing and start all over.

“I came around to accepting that,” she said. “The good thing about it was that I didn’t have to have radiation.”

In telling her children — a teenage daughter, Emma, and a pre-teenage son, Mike — Woodbury wanted to avoid alarming them.

She and her husband, Michael Pallarino, a matrimonial lawyer with his own practice, waited until there was an official diagnosis and treatment plan.

“I told my children it’s basically lazy cancer,” Woodbury said. “It hasn’t gotten up and run around yet and that we caught it that early.”

Woodbury described her surgery to Emma and Mike this way: “It’s like going in the top of a pumpkin and scooping out what’s inside.”

Her attempt to keep them calm didn’t work exactly as planned.

“They were instantly terrified and crying and quiet,” Woodbury remembers. “To this day they don’t talk about it. It was very emotional.”

This reaction is somewhat expected for teens, says Brandy Johnson, a senior oncology counselor at St. Clare’s Hospital’s Cancer Care Center.

“This is typical, and it is unique,” Johnson said. “Each child, no matter what age, deals with a diagnosis in their own way. Some of it has to do with age, connection with the parent and how they have handled other stressors in their lives.”

“I tell all parents to be honest, be available and to be at their level, when talking with their children,” Johnson said.

Woodbury had her surgery at Overlook Hospital in Summit in April 2009 — a mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

She came home to endure a six-month recovery process. With her family and friends at her side, cancer support services at Overlook Hospital, and Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert to make her laugh (once her physical wounds had healed enough to do so safely), Woodbury has recovered just fine.

She volunteers with cancer support groups and is on the community advisory board of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center in Morristown.

This summer, the family took a cross-country train trip to California. And Woodbury, the owner of Emmi’s Interiors, has overseen the remodeling of her kitchen and family room.

“There are very bad days when no amount of positive thinking makes sense and it shouldn’t,” Woodbury said of her experience.

“You have to do what you have to do,” she said. “There are people depending on you. And you have to learn to depend on people.”