Lt. Holly Wasilewski went a year without remembering to conduct a routine pat-down for which she’d been trained—and now she believes she’s paying a personal price.
In coming weeks Wasilewski—one of the force’s model community-policing cops and a mentor to younger female members of the force—will leave her post as the Hill North neighborhood’s top cop for a few weeks as she undergoes surgery for stage two breast cancer. Then she plans to return to the post while undergoing chemotherapy.
The news stunned Wasilewski’s colleagues. They rallied to help a colleague who usually rallies them to help other cops or people in the Hill.
“Everyone is in shock. They’re saying, ‘How could something like this happen to such a beautiful person?’” said Officer Elsa Berrios, Wasilewski’s buddy since their days together in the training academy. “She plays a very big role not only in our department, but in the community. She’s there for everybody. Any time of the day, any time of the night.”
Berrios and other cops have organized a Dec. 1 fundraiser at Van Dome to help Wasilewski financially through her treatment. See the flyer at the bottom of this story for details.
And they came up with a slogan—“Pat Down For Holly”—that they’ve printed on pink-beaded bracelets to help her get out the word to other women: Don’t make her mistake. Check yourself for lumps once a month.
“I want other women to know: Just because breast cancer doesn’t run in your family, or you’re at a young age, you should be conducting monthly self-exams and checks,” Wasilewski, who is 44 and whose blood relatives have not had the disease.
“If I had checked sooner,” she added, her breast cancer would have been caught sooner and perhaps required her to undergo less rigorous treatment.
A Private Person Speaking Out
Wasilewski made the comments in an interview Monday. Usually she hesitates to call attention to herself. She’s known for unusual extra-duty efforts to, say, organize a neighborhood toy drive or help a family find new furniture after a fire or take an at-risk kid under wing. But she prefers to have attention called to cops who work with her instead. She also tries to maintain a boundary of personal privacy in what is a public job.
She made an exception with this most personal of experiences in order to raise awareness about a disease that is the most common form of cancer to afflict women, hitting some 200,000 patients each year in the U.S..
“I was one of those people that never thought cancer would affect me at this age,” she said. For a good year she never bothered checking monthly for lumps. She just happened to while in the shower one morning a little over a month ago. She found two lumps in her right breast.
Even that discovery didn’t overly worry her; 11 years ago she had a lump checked in her other breast and discovered that it was a fibrocyte, not cancer. Nothing to worry about. She figured the new lumps may be more of the same.
But she did have the new discovery checked out. At her ultrasound, the radiologist said that even though final results would take days, “We have a serious concern here. You have highly suspicious masses in your breast.”
Now Wasilewski was worried. She went to see a specialist, who confirmed that she had stage 2 breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma. It hadn’t spread to other parts of her body, thankfully, meaning her long-term prognosis is good. (Average five-year survival rate: 98 percent.) But in addition to the surgery she’ll have to undertake the grueling process of chemotherapy.
“It was a pretty big shock to me,” Wasilewski said. She found friends and acquaintances who’d been through breast cancer. “They told me [chemotherapy is] very manageable. They walked me through it. They had small children; they had to deal with it. It’s not like the old days when you’re on the floor vomiting.” She learned that she will lose all her hair in the treatment. That didn’t sit well at first: “I like my hair. It’s long.” Her friends told her that process, too, isn’t as bad as it sounds.
She did learn that she’ll have to take two to three weeks off in the coming month when she has surgery. After that, she’ll play it by ear. Her surgeon, Anees Chagpar of the Smilow Cancer Hospital, told her she’ll probably be able to work during chemo, that “the more active you are,” the better you heal. There may be days when you have to call in sick. And Wasilewski expects she’ll have to trim down to five eight-hour days rather than 48-52 she currently works.
In recent years some people have questioned whether all women should conduct monthly self-exams; women who felt anxious about doing it right sometimes worried unnecessarily about false alarms. Surgeon Chagpar, who directs the Yale-New Haven Breast Center at Smilow, said she agrees with the American Cancer Society: Starting at 20, most women should start doing monthly exams, to “get familiar with theri breasts” so they’ll detect unusual lumps early, a discovery that can enable doctors to treat cancer earlier and more easily. She also recommends that women get annual clinical breast exams.
Chagpar said Wasilewski has dived into research about her condition. She has approached the case like a cop digging into a crime.
“She’s always seeking out who has the most knowledge. She wanted to underrstand all the facets, what each of the doctors involved in her treatment would do, how they would work together, what forms of therapy she would undertake after the surgery, Agpar said. “She is a very educated person. She’s very proactive. She really wants to learn about the disease.”
“I thought, ‘This is the hand I’ve been dealt. I’ve got to take care of it,” she said.
A Child Named Grace
She’s used to helping others with the hands they’ve been dealt. Kids like Grace.
Wasilewski met Grace eight years ago. Wasilewski was working a regular extra-duty shift at the Church Street South projects across from the train station.
Grace was 11 at the time. She was a friendly kid. She and Wasilewski would talk. “We just seemed to connect.”
“One day I decided to bring her an Easter basket,” Wasilewski recalled. At Grace’s home, she learned that the child’s mother, a single parent, was in the hospital for serious ongoing health problems. “They had things tough,” Wasilewski discovered. She started bringing Grace school clothes and holiday gifts. She took her to movies, restaurants, and visits to meet Wasilewski’s own family.
One day a fire ravaged Grace’s family’s apartment. Wasilewski and her mom found a kitchen table set for them. Wasilewski also found them living room furniture being discarded by a neighbor.
Wasilewski also stayed in touch with Grace’s teachers. Grace moved around, too: with an uncle when Mom was hospitalized, then back with Mom, then permanently with the uncle when Mom passed away.
Through parent-teacher conferences and emails, Wasilewski learned how Grace was doing in class, then helped her keep up with her course work. Grace graduated Sound School. Holly has since steered her to STRIVE, a job-training program, and kept tabs on her forays into the work world.
Wasilewski, who grew up in the Naugatuck Valley, learned about helping others by watching her mom, who volunteered a Milford homeless shelter and soup kitchen. “She would go to a tag sale and meet someone” who, say, just lost a spouse and needed help cleaning out an apartment. “My mother would help them for nothing. She’s big on, ‘Bring your slightly used clothes to the shelter.’”
Wasilewski grew up wanting to help other people, too. First, as a cop: in eighth grade, she and her friends were Hardy Boys fans; a friend’s father made them badges and “fingerprinting” kits made of body powder and scotch tape. Later, in high school, she thought of joining friends in pursuing a nursing career. Watching what nurses do all day during an extended stay in the hospital for pneumonia “totally changed my mind.” She started out studying psychology at Central Connecticut State University. Then she got to talking to cops while working at Bopper’s in Hartford. The job—being “out in the community,” “never knowing exactly what you’ll be doing each day”—regained its appeal.
She joined New Haven’s force more than 15 years ago. She earned a reputation among street outreach workers and officials like Hill Alderwoman Jackie James as a true community-policing cop; running the Hill North district, she knows every inch of the neighborhood, helps neighbors address small problems (like a troublesome liquor store) before they get bigger; gets to know the kids, including the gang members.
As she tackles a new, more personal physical threat—her breast cancer—Wasilewski has found ways to focus on upsides. Like about the temporary hair loss.
“I’ll be able to save on highlights,” she remarked. “And not having to do my hair. It’s a project, because it’s so long.”
Anyone interested in reserving a $20 individual or business “booster” listing (checks payable to “Friends of Holly”) in the event booklet for Wasilewski’s fundraiser should contact Lt. Petisia Adger at at 203-687-0548 of Lt. Anthony Duff at 203-687-0536.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Peter Krause
• Amanda Leyda
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Alan Wenk
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski
(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)