Inga Skuratovsky, a well known Greenwich photographer, and brave cancer survivor shared her story. We cannot wait to see her walk as a Model of Inspiration at the BCA Annual Luncheon on October 25, 2023.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I hope my journey will help and heal other women. It’s been nearly two years now, and I can finally talk about what happened to me. It was the earthquake that turned my life upside down, and I’m still dealing with the aftermath.
My parents always taught me not to show fear, and perhaps that’s what got me through this ordeal, but it also made it incredibly challenging. It all began with a routine mammogram that shook my world. I remember sitting in the waiting room, draped in a gown, anxiously awaiting the radiologist’s assessment of my scans. My mind was preoccupied with thoughts of my busy schedule as a photographer and mom; I had squeezed in the appointment between numerous commitments. When the radiologist asked me to return for additional scans, I knew this was far from routine, and a wave of fear washed over me. Thoughts raced through my mind: “I’m too young to have cancer. What does this mean for my kids? Will they grow up without a mother? How will this affect my family, my career, my life in general?”
My worst fears materialized when I received a call while in the car with a close friend. My legs didn’t give out, but I felt like they did. My son and his friend were in the backseat, and I tried my best to remain composed and not reveal my distress. My son’s elementary school graduation and my twin daughters’ birthdays were approaching, and I was too engrossed in life to have cancer. Did I mention this was during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with kids still wearing masks to school, and I worried about how this would affect them if my immune system became compromised?
The voice on the other end of the phone confirmed my fears: “You have breast cancer, and we need to conduct further tests and refer you to a specialist for treatment.” Describing the first few hours, days, and weeks after my diagnosis is challenging. I felt like I was floating outside my body, struggling to comprehend the severity of the situation. I questioned everything: “What’s the extent of this? Should I be worried? Am I acting normal? Will people treat me differently? Will I still get hired as a photographer? How will my kids be affected? Will my body be forever disfigured? Will I lose my hair? Which doctor is the best?” I was navigating a whirlwind of emotions and decisions, unsure of how I arrived at my choices.
The first doctor I consulted with left me bewildered by presenting numerous options for breast cancer treatment, including surgery, and the task of finding my own oncologist. Even for an early-stage breast cancer diagnosis, there were choices to make, such as a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or breast reconstruction using abdominal tissue. The thought of making these decisions overwhelmed me. I reached out to other survivors, but none had the same diagnosis; breast cancer is a complex disease with many variations. Each survivor had taken a different path, and there was no one-size-fits-all solution. I realized I despised having to choose; I just wanted the doctor to tell me the best course of action to ensure my children still had a mother. My sister’s friend recommended a doctor at Sloan Memorial in Westchester, and that decision proved to be the right one. My supportive and exceptionally wise husband took me to see the new breast surgeon, helping me make crucial decisions, and my healing journey began.
I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, measuring 0.7 cm. Initially, this seemed manageable, and I began to regain hope. Four weeks later, a biopsy and follow-up surgery revealed that I had HER2+ stage 1 Breast Cancer. My community and friends rallied together, graciously bringing me gift cards to local restaurants for those days when cooking was out of the question. However, I was reluctant to accept support through meal trains or handouts. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through and was not happy when the word got out that I was sick. What I craved was distractions– slow walks in my neighborhood and sipping tea on my front porch. Recovery from surgery was challenging, with a few complications that landed me in the emergency room at Sloan Memorial Hospital in NYC. My husband, parents, and mother-in-law pitched in by handling cooking, laundry, and childcare as I recuperated in my bedroom.
As in earthquakes, my aftershock was coming. The most daunting phase lay ahead. Unexpectedly, following a pathology study of the cancer, I was informed that chemotherapy was necessary. Confusion and shock engulfed me once more. I had convinced myself that this was a minor stage 1 cancer, something I could easily handle. However, my oncotype score indicated a need for more than just surgery; I needed chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone suppression therapy. I don’t think I cried when I found out I had cancer, but I recall shedding tears this time. The doctor reassured me that most likely I wouldn’t lose my hair and I was strong enough to handle the 2nd phase of treatment. I really didn’t want to go through with chemotherapy, but my husband looked at the statistics and declared that it wasn’t a choice.
And so, it began – chemo every other Thursday for five grueling months. With each session, I felt progressively worse after each treatment. Weekends were spent battling severe sickness as the poison coursed through my body. I was incredibly nauseous, emotionally drained, and constantly fatigued. By the end of the treatments in early spring, I could barely manage basic tasks and spent days confined to my bedroom. Steroids, given to tolerate the chemotherapy, kept me awake at night, and I experienced moments of mental confusion and deep sadness. I am eternally grateful to my husband, who drove me to every appointment and every chemotherapy session without any complaints and acted like it was not a big deal. I relied on him heavily for mental and physical support. He didn’t just take care of me but ran our household, made lunches, drove kids to school and to all the activities and worked full time. I was very sick every other week but was able to function in between. I was very lucky to have photography as a distraction; my clients were gracious, supportive, and patient with me, but I was sad I didn’t have enough strength to take on new clients or grow my business that season.
Following chemotherapy, I began radiation therapy that lasted about 6 weeks, stage 3 of my treatment which presented its own set of challenges. Daily trips to Sloan Memorial left me exhausted. Finally, on to stage 4 of my treatment, I was thrust into chemically induced menopause because my cancer was estrogen-sensitive and needed to be suppressed. This treatment left me perpetually tired, plagued by hot flashes, mood swings, and sleepless nights. Coping with it all was tough but not being busy was overwhelming, and I continued to work, volunteer at my kids’ activities, and engage with my children because I was acutely aware that childhood passes quickly, and I didn’t know how long I could be there for them, given the risk of cancer recurrence and metastasis – a scenario that tragically befell a family friend. I juggled the demands of my family, my work, and the ongoing battle with cancer.
During chemotherapy, at the peak of my emotional and physical vulnerability, I felt isolated and alone. As the dust settled and my treatments progressed I struggled to hold myself together. I had concealed my cancer and treatment so effectively that most people thought nothing was wrong, unaware of my ongoing battle. Some friends were incredibly compassionate, showing up with flowers and drinking tea with me on my front porch to distract me or let me use their chairs when I could barely stand at basketball and football games. Yet others got freaked out by my diagnosis and disappeared, “out of sight out of mind” or lacked empathy. I was definitely not fun to be around in a span of a year, from one treatment to another. Back then I was always on edge, tired, and emotional. It’s hard to look back and realize that I was ever that fragile and weak. It took another year to heal from chemo and radiation and I finally feel almost like myself again. I really felt like my life was on pause for 2 years and I resented the loss of the time.
The aftermath of my earthquake resembles a rainbow. Now, with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation behind me, and my estrogen-blocking protocol in place, I’m finally beginning to heal physically and emotionally. My children and husband weathered my ups and downs, and my family and friends rallied around me. Today, I share my story with the hope of supporting other women. Two years after this journey began, I can see it more clearly. It was a challenging path, and I spent a significant portion of it downplaying its significance, reassuring myself and others that it wasn’t a big deal. I minimized the effects – my hair only thinned and I underwent a lumpectomy not needing reconstruction surgery. I resented the color pink and being labeled a “survivor.” These days, I’ve focused on family and my career; I removed negative people from my life and taken up tennis as my primary form of exercise; there’s something therapeutic about hitting the ball hard, making the negativity dissipate. I’ve focused on improving my diet, as chemotherapy and steroids can lead to weight gain, and proper nutrition is a crucial part of my treatment, but I still have a long way to go.
My advice to every woman out there is that surviving breast cancer is a journey, regardless of the stage, but it’s possible. Cherish every moment you have. If you’re a mother, concentrate on your family – each phase of childhood is fleeting and comes with its unique rewards and challenges. I try to remind myself daily that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. Our choices, resilience, and attitude significantly impact the outcomes of our journey. My parents, kids, husband, tennis, and my career as a photographer sustained me through breast cancer. As a photographer, it’s a humbling experience to be invited into the lives of others, entrusted with capturing their most cherished moments. The authenticity of these connections is what makes it so incredibly special. I relish meeting new people and seeing familiar families return year after year for various special moments. I am deeply grateful to my community, friends, and all those who supported me during my most challenging moments, as I strive to banish negative thoughts and focus on what matters.