Shirley Vesterby-Colabella wanted to know when she was going to die.
She was first diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 1999, 11 months after her first grandchild was born. She had a lumpectomy, underwent chemotherapy, went through 31 days of radiation therapy. She tried tamoxifen, the “five year pill” that is supposed to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back, but it made her so sick, she had to stop after two months.
About seven years later, she went to see a gastroenterologist because of a stomach issue. The doctor took a scan and found tumors, tumors in places they hadn’t been before. Her doctor recommended a lung biopsy, and the night before they results were due, Vesterby-Colabella found herself praying.
“I had looked up lung cancer issues just to get a list of questions ready,” she said. “I told my daughter, ‘Pray that Mommy just has breast cancer.’ Who goes to bed praying you have breast cancer?”
The cancer, though, metastasized. And Vesterby-Colabella wanted specifics.
“I made my doctor tell me how long I had,” she said. “I needed to know what I was dealing with, what I needed to take care of.”
Two and a half years, he told her. Ten years ago.
“I’m still under treatment,” she said. “It’s a miracle. Nobody knows why I’m even alive.”
Vesterby-Colabella, a Hamilton resident, was one of 22 breast cancer survivors and patients who performed in “Breast Cancer: Personal Stories of Triumph,” a show choreographed and presented by Roxey Ballet the first weekend of June. Dancers and directors from the company interviewed the women and crafted dance performances based on their personal stories. Some danced, some read monologues. The result was a moving performance at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton.
“I’ve been fighting cancer for so long,” she said. “I’ve done every walk, every fundraiser, I have every pink ribbon you can imagine. But I had never heard of a way to tell my story through dance, music, words.”
Vesterby-Colabella, 66, didn’t dance in a solo number—there was “not a lot I could have done,” she said—but she did deliver a monologue about living with Stage 4 cancer. She talked about the scar tissue from her tumors and the damage years of powerful medication has done to her body. She is in constant pain, she said, and after she takes her multiple medications in the morning, she sits with a heating pad for an hour before she’s able to get up and really start her day.
“I told my daughter, ‘Pray that Mommy just has breast cancer.’ Who goes to bed praying you have breast cancer?”
When her cancer first metastasized, she didn’t question those side effects. Now, though, she doesn’t let them hurt her quality of life.
“I’ll never be the type to lay in bed, telling people to watch me cry,” she said. “My choices are to take it and enjoy life, or take nothing and give up. I won’t do that.”
When Robbinsville resident Luba Dziubas was diagnosed with breast cancer about 12 years ago, she had a similar outlook.
It started with a small, itchy lump on her breast. Dziubas is a salon owner by trade and says stray hairs sometimes get in her clothes or on her skin. She suspected hair was the cause, but after washing the area frequently without any change, she realized that was probably not the case.
She also started to feel extremely exhausted. At the time, Dziubas spent hours a day on her feet cutting hair, teaching at the Mercer County Technical School and working as a skincare specialist, in addition to taking care of her family, so she knows what being tired feels like. She had never felt exhaustion like this, though. She often found herself falling asleep at the dinner table.
Dziubas, 59, was always good about getting an annual mamogram, she said, because her aunt had breast cancer. When she got hers that year, the doctor called her into an office, and she knew something was wrong. A one-time pre-med student, she took one look at the image and knew she was looking at a tumor. She also insisted on a bone scan—due to her exhaustion, she thought the cancer may have metastasized—but that came back negative.
“I thought if it was in my bones, I would throw a big party before it ended,” she said.
Like Vesterby-Colabella, she had a lumpectomy and then underwent 20 weeks of treatment. As that neared its end, her doctor tacked on another 20 weeks, but not before she and her husband, Michael, were able to take a two-week trip to Myrtle Beach to celebrate a little break between chemotherapy treatments.
She has been cancer-free for 11 years.
“I didn’t go to support groups,” she said. “I didn’t get depressed. I was too busy for self pity. My children dealt with it well because of the way I coped, and because of my disposition. I just decided to deal with this.”
Dziubas owns Radiant Salon in the RWJ Fitness Center, where she has been for the last six years. She was previously the regional director of six Philadelphia-area Gordon Phillips Beauty School locations, and she also owned a salon in Yardville.
Hair, it turns out, played a major role in her dance at the Roxey Ballet show, entitled “Rock That Wig.” When she started losing her hair, Dziubas changed her wigs almost daily—the natural blonde tried red hair, hair with a pageboy cut, curly hair, with outfits to match. Michael didn’t know what he was coming home to, she said, and sometimes, her coworkers and clients didn’t recognize her when she walked into work.
Dziubas often works with cancer patients and survivors at the salon, shaving their heads or fitting them with wigs. She’s learned that because the wig has nothing to cling to on a bald head, she needs to use special tape to secure it. She learned this the hard way, when she walked out of one of her wigs after it got caught on a tree branch. It’s hard not to laugh along with Dziubas when she recounts that story.
‘When you find out you have cancer, it’s very scary. But you need to see people live with it.’
Roxey Ballet founder Mark Roxey was immediately taken with both Dziubas’s story and bright, funny disposition. He knew she would be able to add some levity to what ended up being a heavy event, so he stuck her in a flaming red wig and Superwoman costume, complete with a cape and matching boots. Her performance was the last before the group finale.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and then I came out in my outfit,” she said. “It got a big reaction. It was peppy, and it came just in time.”
The women practiced for a couple of months in Lambertville. Many had to set aside prior commitments. Vesterby-Colabella, known as the “Friday Lunch Lady” at the Robert Wood Johnson cancer center, where she volunteers in the cafeteria, put those efforts on hold. She also temporarily left the chorus she sings in, the Chantones, who are based where she lives in the Enchantment at Hamilton development, while rehearsing for the show.
“I thought it was one thing that I could do that could live on,” she said. “Some people were done with treatment. Others were survivors. Some are still getting treatment. The group met for the first time at our first practice, but we really became a sisterhood. We were crying like idiots. We couldn’t believe how they could take our stories and convey them in dance. There was lots of crying. Everyone in the audience was a caregiver, a survivor, afflicted with another disease, the relative of someone with cancer. They can relate to this.”
Vesterby-Colabella was born in Van Nuys, California into an Air Force family. Her family moved to and from Air Force bases in San Francisco, Germany and Florida. She still meets up with a group of other “military brats” she grew up with in Germany, and traveled to Texas last month for their annual reunion.
Her husband, Frank, is from Long Island, New York, where the couple moved and raised their children when they got married. Frank, who works for Verizon, was relocated to New Jersey. She’s happy to be in Hamilton and close to her children, Frank III and Cynthia Meara, and six grandchildren, Morgan, Melanie, Madison, Cameron, Max and Reese.
Dziubas grew up in Philadelphia and then in Hamilton. She and Michael have two sons, Michael and Mark. They have lived in Robbinsville for over 20 years in a house her father built and she and her husband designed. She purchased the property in her 20s, knowing she wanted to make a home there.
Both women have had different experiences with cancer, but both have approached it the same way: with humor, and with strength.
“When I found out I was sick, I knew I would die,” Vesterby-Colabella said. “I didn’t know when. Sometimes the side effects are so bad, you feel like you’re going to die. When you find out you have cancer, it’s very scary. But you need to see people live with it.”