Breast Cancer – Our Journey
I do a great deal of speaking regarding breast health and taking charge of one’s life. As a motivational speaker you hope that your message reaches the spirit of your audience to take action regarding their health, particularly their breast health. When it comes to our breast health, or any health issue for that fact, as individuals we must be willing to get to know our bodies and become aware of any change from yesterday, last week, last month or last year.
Often times our body will send us warning signs that we can heed or simply ignore. I believe in the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So when I meet women who tell me they have a family history of breast cancer and know they should being doing things to manage their breast health but elect not to, because they prefer not to know if something is wrong, I am left speechless. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, after lung cancer in women. If you had a blister on your foot would you not do something about it instead of letting it fester into a serious wound? Of course you would. That is why it is so important to follow the American Cancer Society guidelines to have annual mammograms after the age of 40 (or younger for women with a family history of breast cancer), have annual clinical exams and even do monthly breast self exams to know your body.
When my friend of thirty plus years told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer last month my heart stopped. This was the first time someone so close to me had heard those words “you have breast cancer.” I asked if she had any indications of something wrong – an unfamiliar lump, skin discoloration, swelling or a strange secretion from the nipples. She told me this cancer was discovered through her mammogram and she was now scheduled for a lumpectomy the following week.
After further discussion she shared that she had not had a mammogram in two years. At a concert on the National Mall grounds she and a stranger discussed a variety of topics and one thing led to another. She told the stranger she had not had a mammogram in two years. This stranger happened to be a double mastectomy survivor and told my friend to schedule her mammogram immediately. I’m listening and thinking “have you not heard anything I’ve been saying for the past 15 years?” Apparently not, but I’m glad God sent an angel to my friend to get her moving.
She then disclosed to me that she had been diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) three years ago. DCIS is the most common non-invasive breast cancer. It is non-invasive because it has not spread outside of the milk duct into the surrounding breast tissue. It is considered a Stage 0 cancer, and treatment is removal of the cancer cells and surrounding margins.
I’m now floored as she continues to tell me she never said anything because she did not want me to worry and make a big deal about it. She is correct, in that I would make a big deal about it. Having been diagnosed with DCIS, her risk factors had increased for breast cancer to reoccur or create a new breast cancer, which is where she now finds herself. Delaying her mammograms was not a good plan of breast health management.
The entire conversation made me realize that no matter how much we preach, teach or reach out to others, the ultimate caretaker of one’s health is you. People will only tell you what they want you to know, and will only do what they are not afraid to do. If there is any drop of fear in their mind about a health issue, that drop grows into a puddle, river, of ocean of fear that makes it harder each day to act on what one knows they should do.
Fear is a state of mind that creates a physical reaction of no action. The challenge we as a community face is to defuse the natural fear of hearing the word “cancer.” Over 96% of women diagnosed early with no metastatic breast cancer (cancer that has not spread to other organs from the original site) survive 5 years or more. For the hundreds of thousands of women who proudly proclaim “I am a survivor” they are living testaments that there is life after breast cancer. Don’t let fear steal your life.
I explained to my dear friend that because she has now been diagnosed with breast cancer, her daughter’s risk factors have increased. The women in her family now have a higher risk factor. This information needs to be shared, because so many women believe there is no history of breast cancer in their family. We must be willing to speak openly about breast cancer in order to help others in our family manage their breast health. The time for silence on this issue needs to end.