Now cancer free, Jets fan star of NFL's pink push
NEW YORK (AP) -- Tina is still unsure how long the quarter-sized tumor was hiding in the side of her right breast.
Maybe a week, maybe a few months. She'll never know.
The mother of three from Staten Island is certain of only one thing: She would not be here right now if she hadn't been watching a New York Jets game two years ago.
''I really wouldn't have caught it,'' said Tina, who requested her last name remain private. ''That's the reality of the whole thing. It just blows my mind, you know?
''It doesn't seem real sometimes.''
On Oct. 17, 2011, Tina and her husband Sal were in bed watching their favorite NFL team playing the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. At one point, she noticed all the pink being worn by the players - cleats, gloves, towels, mouthpieces - and wondered why. Moments after her husband explained that it was part of the league's annual campaign for breast cancer awareness, she performed her first self-examination.
''I started to feel around and he was like, 'What are you doing?''' Tina recalled with a laugh. ''And, I said, 'I don't know. Let's just see.'''
It took only a few seconds to find the round, solid lump that changed her life.
''As soon as I felt it,'' she said, ''I knew something was wrong.''
Tina, who was 33 at the time and had no history of cancer in her family, set up an appointment with her doctor. Two weeks later, she received the stunning news - while with her kids at a car wash - that she had triple-negative breast cancer.
''I sat there for like a minute,'' she said, getting choked up, ''and was trying to think whether I heard right.''
What followed was a year of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments that were, as she put it, ''nothing short of horrible.'' But nearly two years to the day she first discovered her tumor, Tina is cancer-free.
She is also one of the faces of the NFL's ''A Crucial Catch'' campaign, in partnership with the American Cancer Society, which stresses the importance of annual screenings for women over 40. Tina's story was played in short clips shown last weekend during NFL games across the country. On Sunday, she will serve as an honorary captain for the Jets at their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
''She has been our anchor this year,'' said Anna Isaacson, the NFL's vice president of community affairs. ''She's just an amazing woman who has worked with us to share her story, and been so open to us. We're so appreciative because you need women like that who are willing to come forward and share their stories as a way to inspire others.''
Shortly after Tina finished her treatments, she sent an email to the Jets, telling them her story and thanking them for wearing pink. She closed the three-paragraph note by saying, ''I am here thanks to you.''
The Jets forwarded that email to the NFL offices, and a campaign star was born.
''I feel very proud to do this,'' she said. ''I can't even put it into words. Just extremely, extremely grateful for this opportunity because I feel like I can educate women and make a difference.''
Since 2009, the NFL's campaign has raised approximately $4.5 million for the American Cancer Society, and the majority of the contributions have come from the sale of breast cancer awareness-identified pink merchandise.
The NFL is auctioning several items signed by players from all 32 teams at www.nfl.com/pink, with all proceeds going to the American Cancer Society's Community Health Advocates implementing National Grants for Empowerment program (CHANGE). It provides outreach and breast cancer screenings to women at low or no costs in 24 cities across the country.
''We wanted to make a difference,'' Isaacson said. ''We knew that we didn't create Breast Cancer Awareness Month and weren't the first people to go pink, but we wanted to take a stand. We reached out to the American Cancer Society and said, 'What can we do that's going to make a difference here? What can we do that's going to make an impact?'''
There was actually a twist early on in Tina's tale. When she went to see a surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, the lump in her breast was gone, making her wonder if there was a mistake.
It turned out, the lump had disappeared, but only from her breast. The tumor had detached itself and was traveling to her lymph nodes.
She then went through two different types of chemotherapy, as well as radiation treatments. Her hair fell out, and her three boys - Sal (who'll be 8 later this month), Marco (6), Anthony (3) - began to realize something was different.
''I really didn't want to use the word 'cancer' because it's going to scare them,'' she said. ''What I did was tell them that we knew I was getting better and stronger when my hair was going to fall out. I tried to downplay it as much as I possibly could.''
Now, her kids are getting a kick out of watching Mommy on TV whenever her commercial airs. And, Tina knows there are other women out there in the same position she once was.
''It's going to sound morbid, but you have a couple of years before you're kind of in the clear, so it's always in the back of your mind, like, 'Is it going to come back?''' Tina said. ''We feel like, that God forbid if anything were to happen, this is something that my kids are going to be proud of someday.
''I always say, 'Look at my face. I'm just like everybody else. And, it happened to me.' Really, this could save your life.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org