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Like most clichés, there’s some truth behind it: Once you survive cancer, you stop sweating the small stuff.
“You take the trivial and get rid of it. You start living life to the fullest. It sounds trite, but it’s the truth,” says Ellen Coren, who was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer at age 44. She found the lump in October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — 20 years ago.
Coren grew up in Northeast Philly. Her father, Abe Rosen, was a public relations icon in the city, as well as a former city representative and director of commerce. He passed away last October at 94. Her mother, Bonnie, who had fought bladder cancer, died in 1990 — two years before Coren herself was diagnosed.
In 1992, Coren was working at the Rosen-Coren Agency in Langhorne, where she’s still the office administrator. The agency was founded by her father and her husband, Stu, who had been a teacher. His father-in-law hired him during a faculty strike and he was an instant hit at its predecessor agency, Somers-Rosen, founded by Abe Rosen and Allen Sommers.
“He learned everything from my dad, and he learned it well. They were terrific together,” Coren says.
Though Coren prefers to play a background role, keeping the office running smoothly, she says public relations “makes life very interesting.”
“It’s so diverse. Every client is different, you’re not stuck with one thing every day,” she says. “And there’s always so much to do — who has time to be sick?”
When Coren, who will be 65 in December, discovered the lump in her left breast, it was so big she didn’t realize what it was. Her doctor sent her for a biopsy, which came back positive.
Breast cancer is commonly classified using the TNM staging system. The letter T, followed by a number from 0 to 4, describes the size of the tumor. The number following N indicates whether cancer cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes, and M describes whether it has metastasized to other parts of the body.
In general, the larger the tumor — the higher the number after T — the lower the chances are for long-term survival, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. T3 means the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters.
Coren’s tumor was 10 centimeters.
Abe Rosen got his daughter in to see Donna Glover, chief of hematology and oncology at Presbyterian Medical Center, now part of Penn Medicine. She diagnosed Coren with inflammatory breast cancer, “which is the worst kind,” Coren says.
It’s a rare and aggressive form of the disease where cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin, causing it to look swollen and red, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, and it progresses very quickly. At diagnosis, inflammatory breast cancer is either stage 3 or 4, depending on how far it has spread.
“Donna said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to cure you. The worry is up to me,’ ” Coren says. “She told me, ‘Don’t read anything, don’t read the statistics, just let me do the worrying’ — and I believed her.”
In an unorthodox move, Glover started Coren’s treatment with weekly chemotherapy sessions, designed to shrink the tumor before surgery. Next came the mastectomy, followed by radiation, and then more chemo. In total, about 16 months of treatment.
It would have been shorter, but a bad reaction to the prednisone used along with the chemotherapy drugs left Coren in the hospital for a month, lungs filled with fluid.
The Corens’ two children, Lori, at the time working for Blue Cross, and Brad, then an undergrad at Penn, visited often. Stu was by her side at every treatment. If it weren’t for them, and Glover, Coren says, “I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Coren’s aunt died of breast cancer in her early 50s, and Lori, who works for the family’s public relations agency, gets checked every year, though Coren doesn’t agree with the genetic testing now available for breast cancer susceptibility genes. “Why would you want to worry your whole life?” she reasons, in a very un-Jewish way.
“If they find something to stop you from getting cancer if you have the gene, that’s one thing, but just to tell you, ‘Yes, you have the gene’ — why would you want to worry?”
After her last round of chemotherapy, Coren asked the doctor if she had had enough, if the cancer was completely gone. Glover said yes.
For the next 10 years, Coren went in for “a whole barrage of tests” every three months, to confirm the cancer hadn’t returned. “There wasn’t a test I didn’t take, to make sure it wasn’t spreading, to make sure it wasn’t anywhere else,” she says.
Meanwhile, Coren tried to follow her own advice and not worry about something out of her control. It was at five years cancer-free, traditionally the “in the clear” mark for cancer, that she breathed a sigh of relief — though the possibility of recurrence never completely left her mind.
“To this day, when I pass Presbyterian hospital, I can feel my blood pressure go up,” she says. “I once told Donna, the hardest thing for me to do is to sit in your office and see all these sick people.
“She looked at me over her glasses and said, ‘But they’re alive, aren’t they?’ ”
Rachel Vigoda is an award-winning writer and editor represented in a number of publications and online sites. This article originally appeared in a special "Fighting Cancer" section of the Exponent.