By Kristen Penfield
Many of us never think that it will happen so young, but it does! Each year, approximately 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed and one in eight American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Hereditary breast cancer, caused by a mutant gene passed from parents to their children is rare however children of parents with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene. Denika Lundy is of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and in her family, this gene is being passed down, ruthlessly and progressively.
More specifically, woman of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage are 10 times more likely to have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 positive genes than the general population. It is known that 1 in 40 Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent are carriers of the gene responsible for hereditary breast cancer. Unfortunately, so many don’t know about this until it has already affected them or members of their family. Education and testing must be done in order to help identify their risks.
THE EVOLUTION OF HER LOSS:
All of the adult women in Denika Lundy’s life have been taken from her far too soon. Hereditary cancers can develop at younger ages as in Lundy’s family whom far too many have died from cancer at a very young age. Her Mother Robin, was only 45, her sister Dory, age 35, her aunt Cindy, who battled breast cancer for 15 years, died at age 48. The list goes on to include her Grandmother age 50, died of ovarian cancer, her great-grandmother of breast cancer, her grandmother’s sister of breast cancer and her grandmother’s second sister of ovarian cancer. Both Denika and her sister Dory were both diagnosed at age 27. As of today, only two of Lundy’s mother’s siblings have not been affected by cancer. To add to her tragedy, she lost her father to liver damaged only one year before her sister Dory’s passing.
“As a little girl”, recalled Lundy, “I remember seeing my Aunt Cindy bald and very sick. She was always wrapped in blankets. I didn’t know about cancer then, all I knew was Aunt Cindy was very sick. That’s how I remember her”. Denika was only fifteen years old when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She remembers a feeling of devastation, helplessness, and fear. Trepidation, anxiety and fright are only a few of the overwhelming emotions felt when cancer viciously attacks a family one-by-one. Lundy was twenty when her mother passed away. After intense grieving over the loss of her mother she became stronger day by day, Lundy slowly was able to overcome her grief and found solace when she met and married her husband, moved to Florida, raising their two beautiful young sons Damian and Dimitrius. Although happy, she was missing her younger sister Dory who was living so far away in Upstate New York.
HER OWN JOURNEY:
At the age of 27, it was confirmed that the lump found in her breast was stage 2 breast cancer. “I knew from our history that I had to act fast,”admitted Lundy, “but it was fear and lack of insurance that kept me from going to the doctor for six month” she added. Denika now realizes that the delay in treatment, most likely advanced the stage of her cancer. She began chemotherapy treatments and underwent a bilateral mastectomy. “I was struggling, but determined to fight this disease,” she added, and she was winning!
In Florida, she found it very difficult as she fought her battle against this debilitating disease. She struggled with her marriage and there were simply no childcare or support groups available to her. She felt alone and terrified knowing she had already lost so many women in her family to the same disease.
After a year of fighting her own battle, Denika received a call from her younger sister Dory in Syracuse. She too, was diagnosed with breast cancer, but stage 1. Lundy recalled, “There was so much emotion. Yelling. Crying. Screaming. We knew we had to be together.” So Lundy moved back to Syracuse to help her sister through her battle, and to help with her then nine-year-old niece, Ataliya.
“My sister and I had to be together. We had to heal together. We had to help each other. We took the time we needed to get through our battle”. As they were researching their disease and their options they became aware that within the inner-city minority community, receiving help was extremely difficult. Denika and Dory began writing down all the problems they were encountering that they felt could be and should be fixed. “Many young minority women in the inner-city are struggling. We are one paycheck away from becoming homeless. Dinner each night is a struggle, and getting rides to a doctor’s appointment is nearly impossible. Care for their children during appointments is difficult. Handling all of this while trying to fight cancer?
Something had to be done.”
Denika and Dory did indeed, do something about it. Their goal was to create awareness and change for young minority women, like themselves. They created, 2Sisters4Life,Inc., a non-profit organization that strives to educate and empower young women and men on the topic of breast cancer. Based on their experiences together, they knew firsthand that the care was not equal to that of their counterparts. Their experiences of being put aside based on their background and lack of insurance were appalling. It was up to them to start spreading the word. “My sister and I began speaking to children at the middle school level. They also conducted seminars that included their personal stories, stats on women of color and their survival rates.”Lundy and her sister wanted to educate young girls that breast cancer can begin at a young age; that breast cancer does not discriminate. They also taught young girls how to perform a self-breast exam. It is a way to Empower them with knowledge so that they recognize warning signs, receive help immediately and improve the survival rate within the inner city communities.“We wanted to inform everyone about cancer”. It is through God and faith, that one must get their mind focused to conquer this disease. “You must believe in a higher power,” Lundy said. What is truly frightening is that if Denika waited any longer to go to the doctor, she would not be alive today. Of that she is convinced.
“Women, men and girls of all ages must become educated and aware about breast cancer. It’s that simple”. Lundy said, “2Sisters4Life has discovered that informing both women and men about breast cancer is a way of instilling a strong sense of community connection and well-rounded support base.”Denika and her sister were making quite an impression. They were informing many and most of all they were saving lives.
LIFE INTERRUPTED, AGAIN.
Denika received a terrifying call from Dory, who was extremely upset and informed her that she had discovered a lump in her breast. Keep in mind, this is eight years after her completed bilateral mastectomy. They rushed to the doctors where again it was confirmed. Dory’s cancer was back with a vengeance. This time, stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and it had spread to her bones. Lundy recalled, her sister’s doctor looked at her and said “If I were you, I’d travel the world because there is nothing we can do at this point”. Denika thought that this is not realistic or financially feasible.
Two weeks after Dory was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, the Lundy’s home burned to the ground. Terrifyingly, this left Denika and her family displaced for a year. Denika refused to accept it as yet another setback. Instead, she viewed it as a sign from God. She accepted some of the money that was desperately needed and used it as funds to travel with her dying sister. They went to Las Vegas, Jamaica, Mexico, and explored several states within the US. She vowed to make the last year of Dory’s life full of happy memories and experiences and adventure. This is also an amazing memory something for Denika to carry with her for the rest of her life. “Dory and I had so many laughs, and I have many great memories. We ate wonderful food, shared endless stunning views world; we truly ‘lived’ during the last year of her life. We brought her pain meds, as she was not feeling great all the time. We celebrated Dory’s last birthday, her 35th, in Mexico. I miss her so very, very much.”
After lovingly assisting her sister in her last months, bathing her, doing her hair, and nails, Dory passed away with Denika by her side. Denika made an important promise to her sister that she would take care of Dory’s daughter Ataliya, then 17. “It was July 9th, 2011,” said Lundy. “Dory told me she didn’t want to die. I told her that God was picking her and that she must trust that I’ve got this,” she added. Dory died peacefully.
Denika knew she had to push hard to continue educating woman and men on breast cancer through 2Sisters4Life, Inc. She vowed that day to continue in memory of her sister. In 2014, Denika moved to Africa for 3 months to educate and speak of prayer and faith. She spoke at Christian congregations in Africa’s French speaking nations. They translated her work to groups of over 150 people who wanted to hear her story. They wanted to know more so they could teach about breast cancer awareness. She has made a tremendous difference. One person can change the world!
Today, Denika spreads her words, efforts and arms all around the Syracuse area. Aside from educating the youth and their families, 2Sisters4Life is building a mentorship program, scholarship fund and resource program to connect those affected by breast cancer with resources such as transportation, childcare, insurance and food. Denika stated, “I must keep the ball rolling in education. This can happen to anyone. When someone gets cancer in a family, the entire family suffers and struggles. Too many times I have seen those in the inner city not get the same care as others. I will not remain quiet and must teach others to do the same.” Through 2Sisters4Life, Lundy volunteers at Susan G. Komen races. This past September marked the third anniversary of her own 5K run/1 mile walk at Longbranch Park in Liverpool which helps in funding 2Sisters4Life.
“It has been growing each and every year,” said Lundy, “I couldn’t be happier. All of the hard work is so worth it,” she added.
2Sisters4Life has a logo of back-to-back faces which is intentional. It represents Lundy and her sister Dory, who always has her back and that Denika is moving forward with their plan to make a difference in the world of breast cancer awareness. She is continuously working with Democratic NYS Assemblyman Sam Roberts of 128th district for mandated laws that would require coverage in ultrasounds for specific women with history of breast cancer at a younger age. Lundy stated, “Without a doubt, had I waited until I was 40 to have a mammogram as the ‘experts’ claim, I would not be alive today.”
“Continuously, I get signs from my sister,” Lundy noted, “I will become cold on one side and smell my sister’s perfume out of nowhere. I know that it is Dory. It makes me happy.”
Denika is currently writing two books, “Thank God I’m Alive,” a story of her journey, as well as a children’s book, “Damian’s Mom Has No Hair,” to help other children endure the pain and answer questions they might have to help children know they are not alone.
Denika is motivated and continues to move forward in her quest to educate. She gathers strength from her sister’s daughter Ataliya, her sons Damian and Dimitrius and looks forward to welcoming a 9-year-old, French-speaking Shellington, from Gabon, Africa, whom she met during her stay and remained close. Shellington will live with Denika in Syracuse.
Denika exclaimed, “It is only with Dory’s strength within me, that I carry on.”