“Rosie O’Donnell saved my life. It may seem like a strange thing to say, but it really is the truth,” says Geri Bell, who works in MetroWest.
Being a loyal Rosie O’Donnell talk show watcher, Bell did what Rosie told all her viewers to do every October: perform a self breast exam. Then, one day in late 1999, Bell felt something in her breast. Since she was only 30 years old and had no history of cancer in her family, she didn’t think much of it. A few months later, she asked her mother about the walnut-sized lump in her breast, and her mom suggested she get it checked out.
After a mammogram and an ultrasound, her doctor recommended she see a breast surgeon. When she heard that, she knew things were serious. The breast surgeon visited Bell in post-op after removing the lump and said he could tell it was breast cancer by its color.
I never knew what a ton of bricks hitting you felt like until that very moment. I’ll never forget it,” Bell says.
The pathology reports confirmed the doctor’s suspicions. She had breast cancer. Bell says, back then, cancer seemed like a death sentence. She had her whole life ahead of her, and now it was uncertain. In the coming weeks, Bell had a full lumpectomy all of the lymph nodes under her right arm removed. The next few months of treatment also included chemotherapy and radiation.
Friends in Safe Places
Bell says one of the things she found helpful was her oncologist’s “chemo room.” There, fellow patients, who were also being treated for breast cancer, would sit in recliner chairs together and receive their chemotherapy. To pass the time, many of the patients would chat. “I learned so much in the chemo room. All the women would all talk to each other and share our lives, our hopes, our treatments. The nurses too; they were a great resource. It just felt so safe and informative there,” Bell says.
One of the best pieces of advice Bell got was that she could take control of the hair loss. As the side effects of the chemo started to set in, it was suggested she cut her hair shorter and shorter so that she – not the chemotherapy – would be in control of its length. When it was time to get a wig, Bell went to a specialty salon that had a private area where she had her head shaved and got fitted for a wig. “Everyone’s experience will be different and since I had no control over being diagnosed with cancer, I found a way to take control the things that I could, like my hair.”
After her surgery and treatment, Bell desired to live what she calls a “clean life.” To her, this meant determining what’s important in the grand scheme of things. “Sometimes I look back and I think ‘God, did I really get that frustrated about that traffic jam?’ or ‘Why did I waste so much time with that boyfriend?’ or ‘Why am I in this dead-end job? What was I thinking?’ When you are faced with a life-threatening illness, you just get really clear about what you want and don’t want,” Bell says.
What became incredibly important to her was family, close friends, enjoying life and giving back. She started volunteering with her local chapter of the American Cancer Society. In the process, she found that she loved event planning and decided to change her career.
Lisa Burtin-Queena met Bell while working together on a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. While she didn’t know Bell during her diagnosis or treatments, she says Bell is such a positive person. “Most people who meet Geri today would never know she is a cancer survivor. She is happy to share her story, but I think what is so great about Geri is that she is just so giving, caring and full of life,” Burtin-Queena says.
Ellen Masters has known Bell since before her diagnosis and says while she is super upbeat, Bell was stoic during the cancer years. “I love Geri to death, but I could tell she was keeping us all protected from what was going on inside. But like she says, everyone has to do it their way. I’m just so glad to still have her in my life,” Masters says.
In 2003, Bell’s mother, Susan Bell, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. While her mother was in treatment in 2005, during Geri’s routine six-month check up, an ultrasound identified a hot spot in her right breast again. Since it was the second time, Geri had no choice but to have a double mastectomy. Geri says the outcome of her double mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries was perky breasts that will never sag. “You’ve got to look for the silver lining in everything,” she says.
Geri, her mother, and her sister, Denise Curl, who is married and has three children, got tested for BRCA. All three women tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene. Geri says that even her sister took control of her own life and made the decision to have a double mastectomy and a full hysterectomy, which reduced her chance of receiving a breast or ovarian cancer diagnosis dramatically. Today, Curl’s prognosis continues to be good. Unfortunately, Geri’s mom lost her battle after bravely fighting for five years.
Today, Geri is living her life and happy to share her story. “If I can tell a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer one thing, it’s just to take it one milestone at a time. Just take it one surgery, one treatment, one doctor’s appointment at a time. You don’t have to do it all at once. And in the meantime, just live! Keep a positive attitude and keep your head up. Be proud of who you are and what you will be going through. You will make it. It just takes time.”