October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
As lifestyle editor here at the Times News, I filter, edit or write stories about news related to this very real scourge on both men and women. Unfortunately, while I was reminding our readers to get their mammograms and clinical breast exams, I was ignoring my own advice.
I was just too busy. I was writing a book, and that took up all my free time. When I was nearing the publication date for that book, I finally made an appointment to have my first mammogram in four years.
The day after my screening, I got a call at work. Something didn’t look quite right. I needed a second mammogram and maybe an ultrasound.
I didn’t tell anyone, not even my husband at first. I found it too difficult to talk about.
In the meantime, my book was published. At a time when I should be feeling exhilarated and excited at accomplishing a long-desired goal, I thought I was facing a death sentence of my own doing. I was terrified and angry at myself.
More tests and doctor visits were scheduled, more mammograms, ultrasounds and finally a biopsy. I finally told my husband, and eventually my editor, Marta.
On July 5, my breast surgeon, Dr. Cara Guilfoyle with Coordinated Health in Allentown, (who I have come to adore, honestly) called to tell me I had stage one breast cancer. She assured me if I had to get breast cancer, this was exactly the way to do it. It had definitely not been brewing for four years, and was small enough that even she probably wouldn’t have been able to locate it during a clinical breast exam.
Thank God for mammograms.
I’ve come to grips with the reality that this is not my fault. It’s not genetic; no one in my family has ever had it. I can blame environmental factors, diet, stress, BPAs, but I’ll never know why I got cancer.
While it was still hard for me to talk about, it was Marta who finally convinced me that I was missing out on much-needed support. So after my lumpectomy I took to social media and shared my story on my personal Facebook page.
The response amazed me.
Within a day or two I received nearly 200 messages, some public, some private. There were gift baskets and flowers. Nearly two dozen cards still line the mantel in my living room. I received a bracelet encouraging me to “Never give up” and a key with the word “Courage” stamped across it. Those items not only touched my heart, they gave me the strength and courage I needed. I slipped the key on a gold chain and I wore it and that bracelet every day to my radiation treatments.
I also received messages from friends thanking me for sharing my story, and telling me that they had also fallen behind on their mammograms and checkups, or they had hit the age of 40 and hadn’t gone yet.
It felt good to know that sharing something so difficult was having an impact on others. Even more so when a friend scheduled her overdue mammogram, and it turned out she too has cancer. It was caught early, fortunately, and she’s going to be fine. Like me.
So here’s the twist. When I shared my news I got a lot of phone calls, emails and private messages from breast cancer survivors or friends and relatives of survivors, all assuring me how lucky I was; how beatable breast cancer is today; how far medicine has gone to combat this disease. Even my radiological oncologist told me 30 years ago I would have had a complete mastectomy.
Those words comforted me, but they also made me sad.
I know too many parents whose children have been struck by cancer. Some of those children are survivors; some are no longer with us.
Every time I heard the words “you got this” and “do you know how lucky you are?” I couldn’t help thinking how much I wanted a parent who has just been told their child has cancer to hear those same words in the next sentence. I want them to breathe a little easier knowing that medicine has advanced enough that while what is happening to their child might suck, in the end, it will be OK.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
If you’re reading this, do me a favor. If you’re a woman 40 or older, get a mammogram and follow up as needed. It can save your life. My cancer was very aggressive. Another couple months, another year, might have made all the difference in the world.
And then, maybe open your wallet and give to a known organization that conducts research for pediatric cancer. Here are some to consider: St. Baldrick’s Foundation (https://www.stbaldricks.org/); the research department at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (http://www.chop.edu/); and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (https://www.stjude.org/treatment/pediatric-oncology.html).
Every little bit helps.