October is designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am not sure when this came to be, but designating a month to get the word out to every woman, encouraging the importance of getting yearly mammograms- kudos to whoever came up with the idea. Breast cancer is one of the most common kinds of cancer in women.
Statistics I have seen are that 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer. In 2019, it is estimated 286,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed.
With those statistics, everyone is touched by breast cancer in one way or another. If not one of the eight who get the disease, then it is almost certain you know someone who has had or currently is fighting breast cancer.
Closer to Home
Personally, I have several good friends who have gotten the frightening diagnosis of having breast cancer. They have been through the side effects of Chemo and Radiation.
The good news is that each of them are breast cancer survivors. When I contacted them to have them help me with this article, their responses were the same, “I will gladly help get out the word that early detection is so important.”
Hearing the advice, “Get your mammogram” from close friends who have gone through months of treatments really hits home.
It is way too easy to think, “No time this week, but for sure will make that call for an appointment in a day or two.”
Do It For Your Family
One dear friend said, “If you don’t set up a mammogram in your own best interest, then do it for your family.” Then she said, “Do it for me, because if, God forbid you get the dreaded diagnosis like I did, I want you to catch it early.”
As my friends shared their experiences there were many similarities. Yearly exams were scheduled, even though they had no symptoms, just following their doctor’s recommendation of a routine annual mammogram.
Each individual was told the results showed a suspicious area, so the next step was to follow up with an ultrasound and then a biopsy was done.
Every Case is Different
One friend shared, “The area that was suspicious was so small that my Doctor told me it would have been 5-7 years of growing before I’d have noticed a lump. My Doctor recommended I have a lumpectomy. Which was a relief, because at the time I was in my 50’s. After the surgery and running tests, the cancer specialist recommended a series of 6 chemo treatments, spaced 3 weeks apart, followed up by radiation treatment.”
She continued, “I was prescribed medication to help me from being sick, allowing me to continue working throughout the treatments, but by the end of the week I was unbelievably tired. I lost my hair, but I believe that was God’s plan to help me, because I didn’t have energy to mess with my hair. Slap on a wig and be ready to go.”
A classmate and long-time friend’s story was a little different. She did discover a lump, but ignored it, thinking, “It’s nothing, just scar tissue from a past breast reduction”. Then in June 2010 during a routine doctor appointment her doctor questioned her self-diagnosis and the sinking feeling started to set in. A mammogram confirmed her doctor’s suspicions, a lumpectomy and testing resulted in a cancer diagnosis.
Treatment for each cancer survivor was pretty much the same. Starting with chemotherapy, then a month-long waiting period, and then radiation. One friend remembered her radiation was 5 days a week for 33 days.
Each person I spoke with noted they were prescribed a medicine that help with feeling sick, but nothing could describe how exhausted they were during chemo treatments. One friend told me her doctor wanted her to try what he called, “The Red Devil Cocktail.”
“That was not a good concoction for me,” she said. “It’s the one thing that made me extremely sick, otherwise I wasn’t ever sick. Though I didn’t feel sick, I was so tired. My principal insisted I take a month off from teaching, so I could come back rested for the second semester. At the time I rejected her advice, but looking back, I am grateful she pushed me to take December off, plus I had a great substitute covering for me.”
It was agreed the radiation wasn’t painful, but it does feel like a bad sunburn after treatment. It was the general consensus that radiation itself goes quickly, but it is a hassle going in everyday and it takes time to get lined up exactly where they want you.
After radiation, some were prescribed a chemo pill for five years. Another took a maintenance treatment called Herceptin. Each of the ladies continued meeting with an oncologist annually and then each were “sprung” from the cancer clinic, hearing their Doctor say the words, “cancer free.”
Family Becomes Even More Important
As I listened to each story, the ladies emphasized how much they depended on family and friend support and prayers. Each had complete confidence in their doctor and staff. One friend shared that while going through treatment she and her family continued to come to Decatur every weekend that summer to the marina where their camper is on a permanent campsite.
“It was important to spend time with my husband, family and grandkids,” she recalls. “I didn’t want my family sitting around during my bad weekends. I wanted my family to live as normal a life as possible. I remember sleeping in the camper while they were on the boat. I received amazing support from our camping and boating friends.” The gratefulness of friends and family was repeated often during our talks. One friend emphasized, “My rock is my Mom, she is who I draw strength from. She never gave me anything but a positive attitude, even on my worse days. She kept encouraging me, always telling me that I could get through it.” She added, “Going through cancer and being single is rough, but Mom kept me fighting, with no excuses.”
To finish one breast cancer survivor’s story, she went on to say, “I was given the ‘all clear’ and I was expecting good news when I went in for my next annual mammogram in March 2015. I was given just the opposite. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on the other side. At that time, I elected to do a complete mastectomy. In hindsight, I wish I’d have done that to begin with. I can't have mammograms now, so I get an annual checkup at the oncologist. Sadly, radiation has caused some heart tissue damage which is now causing me problems with keeping the ICD leads in place. Radiation may be easier to go through than chemo, but it does a lot of damage that shows up later.”
Another friend has now been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“You know, I got through breast cancer, and I will keep fighting this too,” she said. “Lymphoma treatment has been more intense.” She shared that there are 14 types of Non-Hodgkin’s, and hers was a treatable type, but not curable. She has a port and goes regularly for maintenance treatments to boost her immune system. “You know what really bothers me the most? It is seeing former students who have been diagnosed with cancer,” She stated. “Recently one of my former students passed away. Another former student is fighting cancer at just 31 years old with young active boys. Heartbreaking.”
The five individuals who shared some of their experiences are living proof that women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early. If you can’t get a mammogram this month, then get it scheduled next month, or as soon as possible.
Get Screened Today
Remember the advice mentioned earlier from my dear friend, “Get an appointment scheduled, if not for yourself, then go in and get screened for your family and your friends.”
As expected, these survivors have hopped on-board in fundraising activities. The Heartland Cancer Foundation is one of the organizations mentioned, which keeps the dollars raised in the Lincoln area to assist local cancer victims. There are many organizations that raise money for cancer treatment, awareness and research.
It is recommended women ages 40 to 49 make an appointment to talk to their Doctor about getting screened for breast cancer.
Women aged 50 to 74 need to visit with their doctor about their specific need for a mammogram. If there hasn’t been any prior diagnosis or areas of suspicion, it is recommended mammograms be done every 2 years for this age group.