By Lynn Stack
Portrait Photography by Kyle Norton
IT WAS THE NIGHT BEFORE HILLARY CORBIN’S LAST CHEMOTHERAPY TREATMENT.
She sat down at her computer to write to a woman she didn’t know. Two friends had emailed her separately saying, “I know this is a really difficult time for you, but I have a friend in Old Greenwich who was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Can you talk to her?”
In a matter of days, Nina Lindia was at Hillary’s front door. “We met on her last day of chemo,” Nina says. “I remember thinking, if this woman can go through all that she has and look this good then I can as well. Her family seemed happy, there wasn’t a dark cloud above the house. It really solidified in my head that I can do this.”
Hillary ushered Nina into the living room. “Come on in, we’re going to be fine. Whatever you need answered I will answer unfiltered, and I will be as gentle or as direct as you want me to be.” From that moment forward, the two were fast friends.
Cancer caught both women unaware. Hillary was thirty-four, married with three daughters, and the living embodiment of self-advocacy. “My diagnosis was one that nobody thought was an issue,” she says. “People told me that I didn’t need a mammogram, that I wasn’t old enough. It was my own pushing that moved past that to ultimately arrive at a breast cancer diagnosis. Being a self-advocate is the reason that I’m here today.”
Nina’s cancer also would have gone unchecked had it not been for her OB/GYN, Dr. Cathy Berzolla, who orders baseline mammograms for her patients when they turn thirty-five rather than the more customary forty. While a routine breast exam didn’t reveal any abnormalities, the mammogram triggered further analysis. A subsequent ultrasound showed small tumors scattered in Nina’s left breast. She was thirty-five, married, and the mother of two—a son and a daughter.
Their diagnoses and treatments were ninety days apart, and from the moment they met, Hillary and Nina were partners in one another’s healing. “We’d joke about high-fiving in the hallways at Memorial Sloan Kettering as we passed each other,” says Hillary, recalling that she had reconstructive surgery the day after Nina’s mastectomy. “We both had surgeries around Cinco de Mayo and laughed about making sure our doctors were steady.”
“Hillary absolutely was the person who made me realize that I didn’t need to wallow in this cancer diagnosis, that I could do this and do it well. Because I had the benefit of talking to her, I knew exactly what to expect. I really do believe that my friendship with Hillary had a real, measurable, scientific impact on my healing,” Nina says.
“Feeling that you can pay it forward has a great benefit,” notes Hillary. “I feel I was sharing what I had just lived. If you ask Nina that question, she’d tell you it carried her because she knew what to expect. For me, I’m an information hound and I wanted to know all of it, so I could give that to Nina. Go buy button downs; no, you’re not going to do your hair on that day; yes, you can go work out. Whatever I was going through, I could download that for her. Now we’re on parallel tracks, those ninety days mean nothing … we’re just living it together.”
Hillary and Nina share a vibrant, optimistic outlook on life, one that was not going to allow cancer to dominate the conversation. “This notion that cancer needs to take over your whole life isn’t one I subscribe to,” Nina says. “It’s adjacent and it’s happening, it should be respected and dealt with accordingly, but it doesn’t need to cloud your entire life.” That determination and positive mindset, coupled with the healing power of friendship, ushered the two women through long months of treatment with grace and courage. “My girlfriends, in particular, are a huge source of emotional support, mostly because they laughed at my jokes before, during and after the diagnosis, and made me always feel like myself—something that cancer can rob one of pretty quickly,” Nina recalls.
Both women continue to give back, speaking to others newly diagnosed with breast cancer and actively supporting Breast Cancer Alliance (BCA). Hillary has transferred her experience with cancer into a front row seat on the advancement front, joining BCA’s Grants Review Committee and its Board of Directors.
“Last year, I had the opportunity to be part of the team that reviews grant applications—requests for funding from people advancing cutting-edge research, innovative ideas and theories targeting a cure. Reading those applications and being part of the BCA has been fascinating; it reminded me of the work people are doing to eradicate this disease from my life and the lives of my children,” Hillary says.
Nina and Hillary attended their first BCA event—the organization’s annual luncheon and fashion show—while undergoing treatment. “Nina was at my table the first year I attended the BCA luncheon. She was wearing a wig and I barely had my hair,” Hillary says. Both women were terrified. When the chairwoman asked those who’ve had breast cancer to stand, the two remained seated.
“Fast-forward two years: I’m standing up and giving a speech as luncheon cochair, saying, ‘How ironic that two years ago I wouldn’t stand up to tell you that I had breast cancer and today I’m standing at the podium in front of 1,100 of you, telling you I’m a breast cancer survivor,’” Hillary recalls. “That’s the power of the BCA luncheon; it’s seeing women do what they do, it’s seeing the incredible good you’re doing in raising money for this cause.”
“It’s a very hard time of the year for me when I’m reminded daily of what I’ve gone through,” Hillary says. Not only is October breast cancer awareness month, it also marks the anniversary of Hillary’s own cancer diagnosis. Standing before a thousand attendees at the BCA luncheon was uplifting. “It was cathartic to go through that experience, to know the good we were doing,” Hillary says. “And in the end, we raised over $1.5 million that year. I was very proud of the work we did.”
Now it’s Nina’s turn to cochair this important event, slated for October 21. The theme of this year’s luncheon and fashion show, It Starts With You: Imagine—Support—Cure, embodies both Nina and Hillary’s friendship and BCA’s guiding principles.
“The relationship between Hillary and Nina, and the interplay between them and Breast Cancer Alliance is especially beautiful because it is at the core of who we are as an organization,” says BCA executive director, Yonni Wattenmaker. “BCA was founded by six female friends, one of whom, and ultimately others, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It is their friendship and determination that remain the cornerstones of our mission and how we set out to attain our goals, even two decades later. We are thrilled and honored by Nina and Hillary’s involvement and support of our work.”
The duo support the BCA in other ways as well. This January, Pitch Your Peers (PYP)—a women’s philanthropic organization founded by Nina and incorporated just weeks prior to her cancer diagnosis—awarded $45,000 to the Breast Cancer Alliance. The award was matched by a $30,000 private gift and earmarked to fund a breast cancer surgery fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the hospital where she and Hillary were treated.
“This PYP grant will go directly to the training of a doctor dedicated to pursuing a career in breast surgery,” Nina says.
Ever strong, gracious and positive, Hillary and Nina remain optimistic about their futures. “Breast cancer can be detected early and many different treatment plans exist,” Nina says. “The disease has been researched for so long. I think all of the cancer demons will fall, but I think breast cancer will fall first. I just want to be around to see it.”