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Battling Breast Cancer between Softball Games

When Laura Ayala learned she had breast cancer, she only had two questions: Was she going to lose her hair? And when could she get back on the softball field?

Laura, 51, had been playing the sport since she was nine, through middle and high school, then in adult leagues. It's who she is, what she does. A breast cancer diagnosis wasn't going to derail her favorite pastime or diminish her passion for the sport. So when she learned in February that she had a tumor, later discovered to be the size of a peanut, she underwent a lumpectomy in March and was back on the softball diamond for practice by the end of July.

"After my doctor called to tell me I had breast cancer, I decided I wasn't going to let this beat me," Laura said. "The play-offs were coming up."

Laura had always been vigilant about getting her mammograms and this year was no different, a consistency that led to early detection. She had been coming to Holy Name Medical Center for her screenings and despite having moved to South Jersey that summer, returned to the Teaneck hospital for her mammogram. Laura was diagnosed with early stage 1 but because of the size and type of tumor, she needed four chemotherapy treatments and a six-week course of radiation after her surgery.

"Laura is the poster child for why women need to go for a mammogram every year," said Dr. Joshua Gross, Chief of Breast Imaging at Holy Name. "Many women say nothing hurts so why should I look for trouble. But Laura's breast cancer was detected very early because she kept up with her mammograms."

Laura credits the medical team at Holy Name who worked on her treatment plan with not only keeping her calm but helping her get through a scary and trying ordeal with little pain or discomfort and a lot of hope.

Starting with the first phone call to tell Laura she had breast cancer, her team was honest but upbeat about her prognosis. One physician said, "I know hearing you have breast cancer is scary. Your tumor is nine millimeters, which is about the size of your fingernail, and you shouldn't panic."

Laura was at work when she got that first call and she said hearing that she could beat the disease helped keep her from panicking. She hung up the phone and decided not to leave work for the day. Instead, she sat for a time, a long time, and then went back to her desk.

"I had work to do and I needed to do it," Laura said. "And that's pretty much what I did through this whole thing. I did what I needed to do."

Laura did have a hard time adjusting to the loss of her hair. Soon after her second chemotherapy treatment, she was on a planned trip to Puerto Rico when her hair started falling out - on her pillowcase, in the shower. Within days she lost 70 percent of her hair and had to put it up in a ponytail for the remainder of the trip.

"Actually, the hardest part of all this was waiting for the results from the tests," Laura said. "And hearing I would need chemo was hard - I knew that meant I would lose my hair."

Once she adjusted to the idea of chemo, she was able to manage it well. In fact, she said she really only had one bad day. She continued working as a consultant in the financial industry, caring for her eighth-grade son and performing dozens of mundane tasks that make up everyday life.

In September, she finished her last treatment. Two weeks later, she made an appearance in a playoff game. She knew she wouldn't be able to pitch for a while because of the surgery, but she took right field. It just felt good being out there, she said.

"When I first heard I had breast cancer, I just wanted to get it over with - now it is. And I made the last games of the playoffs," she said with a smile.