October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. So I thought I’d wait till November to mention it as a way of making sure that my message wasn’t lost in the pink shuffle that is October. Sort of like when you give someone their birthday presents a week late. It gets noticed above the other gifts that came all at once and, even better, it keeps the celebrations going for longer. Everyone’s a winner. The fact is, my awareness of breast cancer is year round and yours should be too. Losing my mother and grandmother when they were in their 40’s gave me a 24/7/365 awareness that most of my peers didn’t have. I can’t remember a time when I WASN’T aware of it.
Thanks to social media we now know all about days specially dedicated to highlighting something in particular. National Pancake Day, International Siblings Day, Ice Cream Day, World Poetry Day, National Sleep day (true fact, it’s March 17)…..and on and on. But they only get one day. Breast cancer gets a whole month. And its own color. So you know it means business. October has been breast cancer awareness month since 1985 and was established as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and a pharmaceutical manufacturer in an effort to promote mammography as the best weapon against the ever more prevalent disease. But I’ve gone a few steps further than just mammograms in my fight.
Today is the ten-year anniversary of my preventative double mastectomy. My “Surgivesary” as I’ve heard it called. Ten years since I lay on that operating table for 9 hours to have my breast tissue cut out and replaced by my stomach fat which was tunneled through my middle and up into my chest. And however painful (it was) and scary (very) that sounds, it was nowhere near as painful and scary as the real threat of getting breast cancer and leaving behind my husband and 4 little kids like my mom and her mom did.
Essentially, I had the same surgery that Angelina Jolie did, only 3 years earlier. And with way less press coverage.
Good thing I forced myself to go through with it because for all of my preventative efforts– years of scans, mammograms, doctor visits and feeling for lumps every month and finally the mastectomy, the most drastic maneuver available—the surgery unmasked tiny but aggressive cancers that were already growing in one breast. A preventive operation turned out to be lifesaving. It was quickly followed by preventative chemo (sucks as much as you think it does, and more). And preventative removal of my ovaries. I guess the theme of this post is PREVENTION.
My mother died 24 years ago, when I was 20. I was sure that by the time I reached my 30s, when I’d have to start really worrying about breast cancer, a cure would have been found. It hadn’t. In fact, the type of chemo I was given was the very same as the one she had. Seriously, pharma people, let’s get a move on!
Over the past ten years I’ve become a breast health advocate and I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls asking if I could speak to someone’s sister, friend, cousin, co-worker, about their diagnosis, treatment, risk factors. They are coming to me not for medical advice, but for my experience, for the truth that the doctors don’t really know. Because the doctors can tell them how to stay alive, but not how to anchor a wig to a bald head during a windstorm (sports tape). And to laugh. My favorite way to help is to make these people laugh because to laugh is to forget for a second.
Today I am in regular touch with four women, one a close friend, who are dealing with breast cancer from various angles. One is post chemo and radiation, post double mastectomy, awaiting reconstruction. One was at risk genetically and had a preventative mastectomy with reconstruction; (I was both relieved and envious to hear that all went to plan and nothing sinister was found in her breast tissue). The third came to me via a close mutual friend and she is post lumpectomy, more than halfway through chemo. The fourth woman, sent my way a few days ago, has a situation so complicated that all I could really do was listen as she rattled off medical terms, all of which applied to her.
I picture us as a version of Darwin’s “Evolution of Man” chart. Just as the primates stand progressively straighter until they evolve into humans, we go from diagnosis to treatment, to post treatment to ten years out looking back down the mountain where we stand with our hair (hair!) blowing in the wind.
Those four little kids I mentioned earlier are all teens now and while I hope they get to see a cancer-free world, I know that hope is not enough. What they need, what everyone needs really, is prevention, vigilance and…..and awareness.