October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). According to the website, NBCAM is a collaborative effort of national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies. The idea is to promote breast cancer awareness, share information, and provide greater access to services.
In 2013 it is estimated that almost 300,000 cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed and nearly 40,000 will breast cancer related deaths will occur. Thanks to increased awareness, new screening methods, and development of new and improved treatment methods, breast cancer mortalities are dropping. There’s genetic testing, preventative treatment options, and I was reading the other day about possible vaccines. I mean, can you imagine?! It’s amazing how technology advances when people come together in a common cause.
It’s incredible to see how many people and businesses come together to campaign for a cure for this disease. There are walks, marathons, billboards, bumper stickers (some of my personal favorites are below), t-shirts, testimonials, etc. that promote better treatments and more informed prevention. Of course, the best preventative care starts at home. Self-exams are extremely helpful in catching any potential issues early as are yearly professional exams. (Curious about how to do that at home thing properly? Check this out.)
I realize that it’s not always all about the humor. Breast cancer awareness is actually a particularly personal cause for me. My mom received a stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis when I was 15. I wish now that I would’ve paid more attention to the diagnosis and the treatment plan, but I was too busy being a teenager and trying to ignore the problem. I know that she had a partial mastectomy and that they had to remove several lymph nodes. Surgery was followed by a long series of varying levels of chemotherapy and subsequently daily radiation treatments. The details I remember are the more every day memories like trying to find the right size bra insert so things didn’t feel so lopsided or shopping for the most realistic wig. I remember learning to draw “realistic” eyebrows and telling my mother she was beautiful, even on the bad days. I remember her trying to find the balance between including me in the process and protecting me from what had to be so much pain for her. After almost two very difficult years, my mother was given remission status. Less than 6 months later she found out that the cancer had returned in her lymph system. It spread everywhere and despite all of her best efforts and determination, she passed away on September 30, just before the big breast cancer survivor walk she was signed up for and just after her 45th birthday.
When I was 15 I could not wait to get boobs! I was always lamenting the fact that mine seemed smaller than anyone else in the family (hey, I’m a girl). But now instead of the power I expected to be able to use those boobs for, I’m scared of the power they have over me. I’m not quite 30 yet and I’ve already had mammograms and biopsies. I’ve chosen not to share those experiences with my family because I don’t want them to worry any more than they already do. My mom was the rock in my family and losing her shook things to the core. I can’t imagine what the reaction would be if they knew about my experiences. No one else in my immediate family has had breast cancer, so I don’t qualify for the genetic testing to see if I may predisposed to the disease. I can pay for it out of pocket, but unfortunately I just can’t afford to do so right now. I can’t tell you how proud I am when women come forward in favor of genetic testing and preventative care (such as Angelina Jolie). You better believe if/when the day comes, these girls are going bye-bye if need be. I want to stick around and I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I don’t see it as dealing with fear so much as smart survival. I was also very relieved when the Supreme Court ruled that the genetic testing couldn’t be patented. I’m hopeful that with a little competition the price for the test will drop so that more women will have access to all of their options.
I hope that this post doesn’t come across as too clinical or too morbid. It’s difficult for me to talk about my mom’s journey and so it does normally come across as somewhat clinical/unfeeling/whatever. I am extremely proud to be my mother’s daughter. She was a strong, competent woman who made me the best parts of who I am today. I often find myself wishing now that I had been more involved in her journey, but then when I reflect on my own hesitancy to reach out to others, I understand. Breast cancer (really any cancer) is a disease that affects not only the individual with the disease but all those around them and even potential future generations. If I’m honest, a small part of my hesitancy to start my own family is a nagging fear of being forced to leave them early. Beyond that, my high school graduation was difficult without my mom – how am I supposed to tell her grandchildren about her? It just seems unfair. And I know so many other women in similar situations that agree. But that’s really a different discussion for another time.
For now, let me say that I hope by sharing my story it will encourage others to reach out and cherish every moment. Stay up to date on these technologies along with the newest phones/tablets/etc. Check yourself and if something feels off – get it checked by a professional! And when you see those pink ribbons or funny bumper stickers, send out some good thoughts to all of those people in this world affected by this disease. Of course donations are great too and some of the events can be a lot of fun – those are the things that fund the research necessary for life. But it’s the people that inspire the initiative, and that makes our voice just as important as our wallets.
National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. > http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/
National Cancer Institute > http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast
Susan G. Komen > http://ww5.komen.org/