Returning the favor

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MICHELLE GISH TTN

An owner of Maxi’s began her battle against cancer, with student support.

Awareness of a disease that is estimated to affect more than 220,000 additional women in the U.S. within the year hit home in November 2011 when Temple’s very own “Maxi’s Mommy” was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Reacting to the news, on Friday, Feb. 24, Robin Novelli’s “Maxi’s family,” in collaboration with TU Dudes for Boobs, held a breast cancer happy hour benefit from 4-7 p.m. to bring awareness, raise money and encourage support.

“A year ago, I found a lump,” Novelli said. The eight-year co-owner of Maxi’s – a pizzeria and bar on Main Campus – said she found the lump, which she was first told was a cyst.

“I thought well, it’s just a cyst, you know, it’s good. It’s going to be OK, you know, and no one suggested to have it surgically removed,” Novelli said.

So, Novelli, 46, continued with the planning of her wedding and got married.

But, “you know in your heart something just isn’t right,” Novelli said.

Following her instinct, Novelli went to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and was diagnosed with first-stage breast cancer in November.

Having no family members with the disease, this came as a “big shock,” Novelli said.

After having the lump removed in early January, she said, doctors waited about seven days before examining her lymph nodes for cancer cells, and found a half-inch tumor.

“After they found the tumor, that changed my whole life,” Novelli said. “You got to fight, you got to do something.”

Novelli’s battle with chemotherapy started Feb. 10.

Novelli’s body reacted to the treatment after a week, attacking her stomach and hindering her ability to do what she’s used to doing at Maxi’s – the place she calls her “home away from home.”

“It’s hard for me because I have to ask for help, for carrying and reaching, where otherwise I would have done it all myself,” Novelli said.

With a tear in her eye, Novelli added, “And now my hair is starting to fall out – that’s why I didn’t brush my hair today. That’s the start that I gotta get used to.”

Novelli will continue getting blood work that determines her chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for four months. Then she will go once a week for 12 weeks, followed with radiation, and then take medication for five more years.

“And then, hopefully, they’ll say I’m cured,” Novelli said.

Novelli said she considers her student-employees and customers, who have shown tremendous support, as children of her own.

“We are a family,” she said. “In my past eight years here I have bailed children out, I have fixed noses, I have fed them when they were starving, I’ve drove them to interviews and home and did laundry. I’m like the Maxi’s-Mommy. When they need me, I’m here.”

Student-employees helped plan the Friday benefit, in Novelli’s honor.

Junior math major Katie McCunney, who has been working at Maxi’s for approximately two years, said, “It kept us more focused on a project instead of on her [illness]. It was something positive everyday.”

Upon hearing of Novelli’s diagnosis, food companies and beer distributors even donated to the 21-and-over event.

Entry into the benefit was $5, and some happy hour specials included $4 cosmos, $4 milkshakes and $3 buttery nipples, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists.

McCunney, one of the planners for the event, said she was overwhelmed with support and help from the Maxi’s staff to make the benefit a success.

“We have half the staff here today helping,” McCunney said at the event. “It’s definitely like a family but it’s 100 percent because of [Novelli and] the atmosphere that she creates.”

Even though Novelli is going through chemotherapy treatment, she is still working at Maxi’s as much as she possibly can.

“The other day [Novelli] was so sick in the morning but she still managed to come in for like two hours to make sure everything was running OK, but I don’t know how she does it,” sophomore kinesiology major Colleen Carr, a Maxi’s employee for two years, said.

Carr, who has witnessed her own grandmother battle breast cancer, added, “When [Novelli] came to us and told us [she was diagnosed], it was so weird because she’s always so on the go all the time and…it’s just so sad to see her like this.”

Novelli prides her establishment on Liacouras Walk as “home base” for Temple students, by creating a welcoming, comfortable and safe atmosphere.

“We’re here at nine in the morning and we don’t leave until four in the morning,” Novelli said. “[If] you need us, we’re here.”

Novelli, born and raised in downtown Mott Street in New York City, said she “would rather the children be [at Maxi’s] than going out in the streets anywhere.”

“They’re safe here,” Noveli said. “I feel like, under my eyes, where we are is a safe-haven.”

Lauren Hertzler can be reached at lauren.hertzler@temple.edu.

[Updated 2/29 at 4:55 p.m.]

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