| By New York Tennis Magazine Staff
Photo credit: Mark Jason

In May 2011 at the age of 38, Debbie Persaud was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Stage IIIB breast cancer. She is a regulatory affairs manager (contractor) who works for Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson Company in Somerville, N.J. This article will share Debbie’s story on how the sport of tennis has helped her through her cancer battle, in her own words. The interview was conducted for the Susan G. Komen Greater NYC Survivor Portrait Gallery. The Survivor Portrait Gallery is a collaboration between Mark Jason Photography and T-LINE TV and its goal is to highlight and honor breast cancer survivors and add comfort to survivors during a very trying time in their life. The interview was conducted by Todd Ehrlich of T-LINE TV and took place at Midtown Tennis Club where Debbie was on hand to showcase her tennis skills for photographer Mark Jason. New York Tennis Magazine was invited to share the experience and inspirational story. The following are excerpts from their interview. Please click here for the Survivor Portrait Gallery.

Tennis is one of the greatest joys in my life. I started playing tennis in middle school after my parents bought me a wooden racquet at a garage sale. I would go to the local recreation field to practice hitting the ball against the wall. I took group lessons at summer day camp in an attempt to make my high school tennis team at Indian Hills High School in Oakland, NJ. It was a very competitive tennis district, and even though I couldn’t make the varsity team, I was one of our best JV doubles players. After high school, I continued to play tennis on the Rutgers campus with classmates which was a great stress release in between classes like Organic Chem and Multivariable Calc.

After graduate school at UMDNJ, I played in the summer league at Mercer County Park and took some group lessons through the Princeton Tennis Program. I also played in an intramural league through work. During one of my matches at the Warren Health and Racquet Club in 2010, I was approached by a USTA League Instructor, Dee Bawa. Coach Bawa said I had some great ground strokes and he was looking for 3.0 women to join his 6.0 Mixed-Doubles team. He asked me if I had ever played in a USTA League before to which I replied, “ME?!?!?! I never even played varsity in high school.” I laughed because I thought to myself, “Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m going to play tennis competitively?” I tried out for Coach Bawa’s team, and to my surprise, I made the 2011 USTA Warren Flight 6.0 Middle States Mixed-Doubles Team.

One day after a team practice, I noticed there was a blood stain on the left side of my sports bra. Being a biomedical scientist by training, I didn’t think much of it since I was not in any pain and thought I probably had a breast infection. after all I am young, in good health, and cancer is not prevalent in my family’s history. I decided to go to my primary care physician thinking I would receive antibiotics, or the worst, it would be a cyst that needed to be drained. My PCP thought this excretion was suspicious and sent me immediately to the Breast Surgical Specialist LLC to get my first baseline mammogram to be on the safe side. To my horror, there it was … a tumor with finger-like projections. I was informed that I had Stage III breast cancer.

Can I do it? That is the basic question that lives deep in every woman's heart after hearing she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Do I have what it takes? When the going gets tough … will I be tough enough? Everyone told me that since I would need to have a port catheter implant in my chest, a few months of dose-dense chemo, a left mastectomy, followed by at least 30 consecutive days of radiation to the chest wall, that I should take medical leave and go on disability. I chose not to go on disability because I do not view myself as disabled. Breast cancer is something that is happening to me, it is not who I am. I am still going to work and play tennis and do all the things that I love.

For the rest of the USTA season, our team played great and ultimately traveled to Lancaster, Pa. for the Sectional Tournament in June 2011. We didn’t get to go to the Nationals, but winning 2011 Middle States 6.0 Mixed-Doubles Area Champions was good enough for my first season with the USTA.

As a Survivor, I am not dying of breast cancer but LIVING with breast cancer. There is a difference, and it starts with gratitude and attitude. I may not have control over my cancer spreading or shrinking, but I do have control over how I react to my situation. I just focus on giving my best every moment, of every day. Whether I feel good or not, I try to exercise every day. I know the chemo is only extending my life. I have to put in the work to build up my immunity to fight the cancer cells that the drugs don’t eradicate. Breast cancer was this uninvited guest that I needed to embrace at this stage in my life. In the end, only one of us will remain, so I plan on winning by not letting breast cancer take away my joy and purpose for living.

Tennis has allowed me to keep my sanity. Tennis has always been a part of Debbie, not the cancer. Despite what I have gone through, you can never take the racquet out of my hand as it is essential part of who I am. My teammates were so supportive throughout this process and jokingly said I must be getting gamma rays like ‘The Incredible Hulk’ because I continued to play strong and run them around the court. Cancer may have taken away my left breast, but it will never take away my racquet or my love for the game!

My message to people fighting a similar battle would be that nothing is “impossible.” As a Survivor, you should take that word out of your vocabulary. That word “impossible” only exists for people who are not willing to do the work. The statistics for some Stage III and Stage IV breast cancer survivors is that less than 50 percent will live more than five years after their diagnosis. Statistics are meant to be broken, so never stop believing that you are going to be the one who will make it! Accept the diagnosis. Fight the prognosis! The mission is Remission! Just know that as you proceed on this journey, you are not alone. I am here fighting each battle right beside you … hitting one smash volley at a time!

Debbie continues to play tennis at the Warren Health and Racquet Club. Her next adventure is to complete 26.2 miles of the New Jersey Marathon on May 6 to celebrate her one-year survival and to support other breast cancer survivors. Throughout all of her cancer treatments, Debbie never felt the need to wear a wig or a prosthesis after her mastectomy. She use to have long black hair, but now appreciates her bald mocha dome as she says, “You gotta’ rock what you got!”