Lori Holveck and Dominique Barba-Bey have breast cancer -- and each other

Someone once said having a sister is God’s way of proving he doesn’t want us to walk alone.

That couldn’t be more true for Dover’s Dominique Barba-Bey and Lori Holveck of Smyrna: although they’re not really sisters, they’re inexorably linked together by an insidious and perhaps life-ending disease: breast cancer.

Although total strangers until just recently, the two met through the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition’s peer mentoring program.

Lois Wilkinson, Education and Survivorship Program Manager for the DBCC and a breast cancer survivor herself, runs the program.

Peer mentoring matches a cancer survivor with someone who still is just beginning treatment, she said. It gives newly-diagnosed women a chance to reach out and connect with someone who has faced the same challenges.

In many cases, the mentoring turns into a deep and lasting friendship.

“When they click like this, I absolutely love it,” Wilkinson said. “Dominique and Lori have so much in common they’ve really become friends and they’re there to help each other out.”

“She’s my sugar and I’m her spice,” the 26-year-old Barba-Bey acknowledged. When she didn’t know where to go or who to talk to after her diagnosis, she turned to the DBCC.

That’s when she was introduced to Holveck.

THE ISSUE: Women with Stage IV breast cancer need all the help and support they can get as they go through the often difficult process of treatment and recovery.

THE IMPACT: Being in contact with another woman who has been through the same struggles they now are facing can provide the emotional support and guidance so necessary for a successful cancer treatment regimen.

“We really work together, we give each other the strength and the power each needs to battle this,” Barba-Bey said.

“It was Lois working her magic,” Holveck, 36, said. “She knew how we could benefit each other.”

‘The battle of my life’

Living on their own and with small children to raise, Barba-Bey and Holveck unreservedly count on each other for that support.

Both have been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer, a disease whose five-year survival rate is only just above 20 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

Barba-Bey’s cancer spread to her liver, but her treatment sessions show that part of the disease has gone into remission. She still is under treatment for cancer in her right breast.

The mother of two, 7-year-old Saywonza and 4-year-old Jada, Barba-bey discovered she had cancer shortly after Jada’s birth.

“I was laying in bed and my chest was hurting really, really bad,” she said. After making a trip to the hospital, she thought the pain could be the result of impacted milk glands. Despite a physician’s examination, the agony persisted.

“Then this nurse came in,” Barba-Bey recalled. “I’ll never forget her because she was pregnant. But she said I had signs of breast cancer. She wanted me to get a second opinion.”

A biopsy revealed Barba-Bey had at least five cancerous tumors and the cells had spread to her liver. Despite just being diagnosed, she already was a Stage IV cancer patient.

That was in February 2014.

“I fell on the floor and I started crying,” Barba-Bey said. “I knew this definitely was going to be the battle of my life.”

Although she went to her kitchen job at Dover Downs the next day, she spent the shift online, looking up anything she could find about the disease.

“All I wanted to know was what was going to happen to me,” she said. “I was thinking, what’s going to happen to my baby. I thought my life was over.

“I felt so lost and all alone and that’s when I found the DBCC.”

Barba-Bey knew what cancer was like: her father died of stomach cancer just before her own diagnosis.

“He’d lost so much weight, and all I could think of was how he was so sick and that he couldn’t eat and he couldn’t talk.

“I thought, ‘That can’t be what happens to me,’” she said.

Double mastectomy

Holveck, the mother of 9-year-old Natlee and 5-year-old Andrew, had a similar experience just after Andrew’s birth.

“I felt the lump on my own,” she said. “At the time my son was only six months old and I just assumed it was a clogged milk gland, so I let it go for about two months.”

During her annual exam, Holveck’s physician diagnosed a cyst but sent her to a specialist. A lumpectomy revealed the truth.

After the initial shock passed, she contacted Wilkinson, whom she’d met while working.

The diagnosis came as a total surprise: there had been no cases of the disease in her family and genetic testing had come back negative.

Although the cancer was in her right breast, Holveck opted for a total mastectomy and then reconstructive surgery.

“I didn’t have cancer on the left side but I was told there was a 65 percent chance of it coming back on the other side. Rather than go through it all again, I decided to have both removed,” she said.

Life afterward was difficult: because she had a lifting restriction, she had trouble caring for Andrew. But she continued her treatments and after a while, the cancer seemed to have disappeared.

That’s when she signed up for the peer mentoring training program.

Mentors undergo a three-hours of instruction covering topics such as their roles as mentors, listening skills, problem-solving, confidentiality and handling difficult situations that come up when dealing with cancer.

The training is free, as is the peer mentoring itself.

A setback

Holveck’s timing was fortuitous for her fellow cancer patient.

“I was seeing the doctor and getting treatments weekly,” Barba-Bey said. “I didn’t have a car, so I had to walk to my appointment, I had to walk to the daycare and then I’d walk home. I still had to take care of Jada.”

Barba-Bey also wasn’t handling the chemo very well.

“I was hurting all the time and I was so weak,” she said. “When you get treatments, people don’t understand what happens to your body.”

That’s when Wilkinson was able to step in.

“After chatting with Dominique, I realized she needed to talk with another young mom, someone going through a similar diagnosis,” Wilkinson said. “I reviewed my list of peer mentors and Lori just stood right out.”

Holveck’s arrival was a genuine blessing, Barba-Bey said.

“When you talk about breast cancer, a lot of people don’t understand it, but Lori had been through it.”

A relapse

And here the story takes a turn.

Lori’s life was starting to return to normal after her doctors declared her cancer-free. But about two years after that declaration, she learned the disease had returned with a vengeance.

“I had completed all these rounds of therapy and they said everything was good, but I had to come back every four to six months,” she said. “About two years ago, the cancer came back.”

Scans revealed the re-emerging cancer had spread to her brain, liver, lungs, and bones.

So now, instead of Holveck providing peer support to her friend, they both came rely on each other equally. Holveck has to undergo radiation treatments for her brain cancer, and has again lost her hair.

She covers her head with a bandana, which she wears during her waitressing job at Sambo’s Tavern in Leipsic.

“Most of my customers know what I’m going through and some of them have become friends,” she said.

Many drop her extra tip money at the end of their meals.

“They tell me they want to help but they say they don’t really know how,” she said.

Always hope

Although Holveck must undergo additional radiation therapy to kill the cancer in her head, the two still share regular trips to Newark for four-hour chemotherapy sessions.

First, there’s a blood test to make sure they have enough white and red blood cells for the treatment, then the center’s pharmacy prepares their individual chemical cocktails.

But the drugs are not administered through an IV tube.

“Both Dominique and I have these ports in our chests,” Holveck said. “When we go in, they just put a needle through the port and keep it in there. You go into the treatment room and they hook you up.”

The drugs and the monotony tend to put one to sleep during the four-hour session, she said.

Despite their situations, both women are looking to the future, primarily because of their young children.

“I’ve got two beautiful girls who look me in the eye and tell me that they need me,” Barba-Bey said. “That gives me the strength to keep fighting. I give God the glory and I push myself because I don’t want to have my kids see I’ve failed.”

Holveck is completely aware that she’s running out of treatment options for her cancers.

“I know there are others out there with Stage IV cancer,” she said. “They say the average lifespan is five to seven years, and that’s in the back of my mind 24/7.”

She wears a tattoo on the inside of her left forearm with the word, “Believe.” It sums up her philosophy when dealing with the cancer, which she’ll be fighting for the rest of her life.

“There’s new medicines coming out all the time, and hopefully something will work on everything that I have.

“There’s always hope.”

Wilkinson, who is a 15-year breast cancer survivor, finds encouragement in both women’s attitudes.

“I never would have gotten through my cancer had it not been for my peer mentor,” she said.

“Dominique and Lori are both very, very upbeat and they’re willing to fight this nasty disease,” Wilkinson said. “You have to be positive and think you’re going to beat it. You need all the support you can get.

“Without that support, it can be pretty lonely and sad.”