Battling cancer together bring Mom and daughter closer
Karen Fassinger of Lower Burrell and her daughter, Kimberly Mentecki of New Kensington, find their most meaningful present today is simply being in each other's presence.
As breast cancer survivors, diagnosed three months apart in 2009, the owner (Fassinger, 70) and manager (Mentecki, 47) of Babe's Broadway Bridal, New Kensington, are on an ongoing mother-daughter health journey, which they hope others never have to experience. The journey also touches the next generation, Mentecki's daughter, Courtney.
"Once you've been through this and wake up each morning, every day is Mother's Day," Fassinger says, her voice trembling with emotion. "Kim has a wonderful daughter, and I have a wonderful daughter. It's special, everyday we have."
Mentecki is reminded of that each morning when Courtney, 4 1⁄2, runs excitedly into her and husband Todd Mentecki's bedroom.
"Mother's Day is especially important now. Not only is my mom a great mom, she is my best friend. I hope that my daughter will say that one day also about me," she says.
Courtney, now a healthy preschooler, had a stroke on the day she was born, Dec. 4, 2007. "We were told, 'We are not sure she will make it,' and 'She may be paralyzed on the right side,' " says Todd Mentecki, who is a New Kensington councilman and firefighter. "We said, 'This has met its match. Kim and I will not give up.' "
They arranged for a physical therapist to come to their home to teach their family how to provide therapy for Courtney. The couple, Todd Mentecki's daughters from a previous marriage, Carlee, now 15, and Katie, 12, and other family members, including Fassinger, performed care for a year until, Todd Mentecki says, they were told, "We think Courtney is absolutely fine."
They only had a short while to relax with that good health news when, in October 2009, Kim Mentecki was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, with 21 out of 22 lymph nodes testing positive for the disease. Her breast had to be removed. "I actually chose to remove the other breast, too (in June 2011), for my own peace of mind," she says.
More bad news
On the day of Mentecki's first surgery, Dec. 10, 2009, her mother learned the results of her own post-check-up biopsy: breast cancer, for which she had a cancerous tumor removed in January 2010.
Fassinger was stunned by the news, exclaiming: "I said, 'No! No! No! It can't be! Kimberly is having her breast-cancer surgery. I have to take care of my daughter.' "
Mentecki was philosophical: "I kept thinking to myself, the Lord made us have this together so that we have each other to get through it." She worried that her mother would not have been as strong if she were fighting it alone. A surgeon told them she never had a mother-and-daughter diagnosed at virtually the same time.
"We are pretty strong people, but when you are faced with this at the same time, it does pretty much test your faith and strength," Fassinger says.
"Mothers, we are supposed to help our daughters, and I think she helped me more than I helped her. I was ready to give up after my first chemo treatment. I'd be sofa-ridden for a week or two," she says.
Her daughter, who began her treatments first, applied a little tough love, telling her mom, "If you quit, I quit."
No one quit. "She was strong and would not let me see how much pain she was in watching her daughter go through all of this," Mentecki says.
"We were just there for each other. We're like sisters and do everything together," says Mentecki, a 1982 graduate of Burrell High School.
The day that Kimberly had her hair removed was difficult. "Boy is it hard for a mother to watch her daughter be shaved. Kim was brave. I'm crying and the hairdresser is crying," Fassinger says.
Later, when Fassinger's hair had to be cut, mother and daughter made it a fun day out shopping for wigs. "Kimberly always uplifted me through life. If I was down about something, she had me smiling and laughing," Fassinger says.
Mentecki says the pills that they both have to take for five years "really affects our bones and body a lot We are tired a lot," she says, "but we are here!"
Bolstered by an understanding staff, they have continued to keep their business open, scheduling chemo treatments so that one of them would always be available for Babe's Broadway Bridal store.
Fassinger's parents used to call her "Babe," so she named the store that she opened in 1995 in memory of her mom, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 77. After working in human resources at Paramount Pictures in California for almost 14 years, Kimberly Mentecki returned home in 2001 to help her mother with the shop.
A joyful business
"It is a joyful business. You're making a bride's wedding the most beautiful day of her life," Fassinger says. They felt an obligation to themselves and the brides to stay in business, Mentecki says.
It is a decision encouraged by their surgeon, Dr. Marguerite Bonaventura of Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, Pittsburgh. "For most people I see, they want to keep doing what they do daily. It gives them something to get out of bed for, to take their mind off of whatever they are going through," she says.
Having two members of a family battling the same disease can be a challenge for the ones diagnosed, but is also provides a unique support system, Bonaventura says. "It depends on family dynamics. A positive attitude is very, very important, as well as medical treatment," she says.
Fassinger and Mentecki have faced it with strength, grace and even humor, she says. "They seemed to function very well together, and it really helps to have a support system in place," Bonaventura says.
Strong support system
They have been blessed with a strong one of family and friends, including Fassinger's fiance, Ray Gretz.
"I'm most proud of their strength. They never gave up," Todd Mentecki says. "It's what has been dealt to us, and you try to press forward. I said, 'Hey, we just beat that stroke of Courtney's. You can beat that cancer!' When somebody asked my wife how she was feeling, she would say, 'I'm doing great.' She never wanted anybody to worry about her."
Though sometimes it was difficult, Kimberly and Todd tried to maintain a sense of normalcy around their daughter. "I was very worried that some day I would have to explain to her what happened to her mother," he says.
"I kept saying, 'I will not let my daughter grow up without a mother! I will fight to the end,' " Kimberly Mentecki says.
"Kimberly has that spirit and I learned from her, and then I look at my granddaughter (whom she helps care for), and those most beautiful big, blue eyes, and who doesn't want to live!" Fassinger says.
She had a great-grandmother diagnosed with breast cancer at 101 who had to have a breast removed. "She lived to be 108 and did not die of that cancer," Fassinger says.
Going through this process makes a person think twice about everything, Mentecki says. "When you are hit with something like this, your whole outlook on everything just changes. People need to relax and enjoy life more and don't get stressed out about things," she says. "Nobody really knows what you go through until you have been there. That is the one thing that Mom and I share. We are a lot closer going through all of this."<