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Posts tagged: breast cancer

Affordable Health Care and breast cancer

With all the political posturing over new healthcare laws, consumers may be easily confused as to what benefits they receive. The new laws offer good news for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mammogram = lifesaver

ABC reporter Amy Robach, 40, took the assignment a bit reluctantly: have a mammogram as part of a Good Morning, America segment during October’s breast cancer awareness effort.

When the results came back positive for cancer, she was stunned – and shared her reaction on GMA. Amy will undergo surgery on Thursday as part of her aggressive treatment plan. She appeared fighting tears as she spoke with her colleagues – her husband at her side – to the viewing audience.

As part of the segment, viewers were told that when one woman has a mammogram and tells others, she influences at least 15 other women to consider that screening procedure.

Nine years ago when a mammogram told me I had breast cancer, I wrote a column for the local paper and it appeared on the wall of a women’s clinic. A friend told me she saw it there. I had no idea my words were posted for other women to read, encouraging them to get a mammogram.

Sharing her screening, its results and her treatment plan, Amy will reach 15 women and millions more. In saving her own life, she is saving countless others. Take heed.

(S-R archive photo: Actress Sarah Chalke gets a mammogram in this scene from “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy,” 2006)

Pink October

The pink ribbons are everywhere: on yogurt containers as well as pro football players' armbands. The message: breast cancer awareness month is here. Pay attention.

My story:  a routine mammogram (get one, please!) detected my stage zero (wildly aggressive cells, no tumor), breast cancer nine years ago. My care was the best because, as a healthcare worker, I knew thee person to go to for immediate treatment.  And I knew where to find support when I needed it most – usually in the dark of night as my family slept. I logged on and found information and comfort on various websites. Pink October feels like an appropriate time to share these life-saving, supportive resources.

FORCE:  (facing our risk of cancer empowered)

FORCE is the only national nonprofit organization devoted to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Our mission includes support, education, advocacy, awareness, and research specific to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Our programs serve anyone with a BRCA mutation or a family history of cancer.”  

While I did not have the genetic predisposition for breast cancer or ovarian cancer,  I found the information on this site extremely helpful. On the message boards I posted my detailed and intimate questions about breast cancer treatment and life after treatment. The women who wrote were profoundly generous - sharing their experiences and offering kindness. Two women sent me gifts and encouraging words. I will never meet them, but I will love them forever. They gave me hope.

A breast cancer site  addresses almost every conceivable topic. Spanish translation is available. Moderators organize the discussion board conversations by topic: stages and types of diagnosis and treatment, day-to-day concerns and recovery, renewal and hope. I posted a question and comments at three in the morning – minutes later a woman in Australia answered. The women who posted comments directed me to my next step: restoring my body with a medical dream team in New Orleans -  my NOLA saints!  Women come from around the world to receive care and healing from these compassionate and skilled physicians.

A breast cancer diagnosis is every woman’s nightmare.  Until medical research arrives at a cure, we will fight to survive this deadly disease. We will continue to tell our stories.   We will fight with courage, knowledge and companionship; we will carry each other through the darkness and celebrate each other’s recovery and renewal until one day - the nightmare is no more.  

(S-R archive photo: Sunrise, Boise, Idaho)

Angelina speaks out

I have not cared for Angelina – given all that she did to mess with Jennifer Aniston’s marriage to Brad. But today…my heart has softened. Her story of facing her high likelihood of breast cancer – genetic certainty – will offer hope to the women who receive their diagnosis today and tomorrow and next week and…

Women make all kinds of difficult decisions when faced with their own mortality in the middle of motherhood. And death at an early age is not an option when parenting sweet children who need and love you – and worry.

 In the years to come, Angelina will grow stronger in her conviction she made the right choice, her children will grow in their understanding of what she struggled with and how remarkably brave their mom is…and how much she underwent so she could continue to love them and accompany them on their journey through life. She will not be preoccupied with endless mammograms or freaked out with twinges within her breasts, wondering if it is cancer growing menacingly within her. Those twinges will be of love she carries in her heart, life’s joyful adventures, not agonizing over what may be quickly killing her. And today, I identify with an actress I now see as a woman of courage –  the same courage I once needed and found, too.

(S-R archives photo)

The outward sign of cancer

My friend Chris, a woman I have known since we were both girls, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, and very soon had a double mastectomy and now, she is undergoing rather rigorous chemotherapy.

Her beautiful, thick hair started falling out in clumps on Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas, we went together to her beloved stylist Sherrie to get a buzz cut. It was a quiet day in the salon, and I took cell phone photos of the process, as Chris requested.

The salon became sacred space during the 20 minutes it took to cut and then shave Chris' head, and in that sacred time, as Chris' hair fell to the floor, I saw many of her family members emerge from her face. I saw her handsome older brothers, Dan and Dick, her son Peter, and also her mother Mildred. At some point, Sherrie discovered the cowlicks on the top of Chris' head, which we remembered from her grade-school photos, and which Chris used to take a scissors to as a child to rid her head of them.

We took note of her aristocratic, strong face. Her eyes popped out, clear and firm. Chris' new look emerged. She has a bagful of warm hats, but on this day she kept her head open to the elements. Afterward, we did not cry, as we expected, but we felt almost giddy, and we texted dozens of family members and friends to say: “Look, this is the new Chris.”

The texts came back with kudos. Beautiful eyes. Good scalp! Great nose. And at the end of the day, both of us exhausted, the day's events catching up, Chris expressed relief that her hair was no longer coming out in clumps, a grief in every handful. But instead, she now has an outward sign of what is happening to her.

She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Her world, her family's world, the world of her friends, is changing with her. It's a huge change. No matter how fluent we get as a culture on the nature of cancer, no matter how hopeful we are about advance treatments and better survival rates, in the middle of chemotherapy, in the darkest days of December, your hair falling out on Christmas Day, you need an outward sign of the hugeness. Chris has it now. I was honored to bear witness.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer …the words still sting – eight years later – when I use them to describe my health history. Some cancer survivors say, “Cancer was a gift.” Ummm, not my idea of a gift. I prefer boarding passes to fun places and homemade cards, cakes and family adventures as gifts. Not illness.

But I do get their message: the lessons learned from the experience remain.

Mostly, I cherish the outpouring of kindness from strangers –women whose posts on the breast cancer  web site   strengthened me and calmed my out-of-control anxiety. Women sent cards, one sent a jewelry pin of women standing together, telling me I was not alone. Mostly, I cherish those 3:00 a.m. messages when I had insomnia and would slip out of bed and log on, posting my questions, grief and fear. Within a few minutes women – often from a time zone where the sun was up – would answer.   I will never know their names, all the details of their breast cancer journeys, but I will love them forever.

A wonderful friend was diagnosed earlier this year with breast cancer, a cousin, too  and this week another woman I know, my age, faces those awful treatment choices.  I want to stay close and offer details of my journey, when asked.  Mostly, I want to be there in their 3:00 a.m. moments of terror or grief or loneliness.

I want to be their gift.

(S-R archives photo: Breast cancer survivors pose for a group photograph behind the INB Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 17, 2011. )

Top this story!

In our EndNotes column today, we answered a question about why people tell cancer horror stories to people going through cancer treatment. Or why they react in weird ways to cancer news. For instance, when my co-author, Catherine Johnston, confided in a colleague that she was taking several weeks off for cancer treatment, the woman replied, “I have news, too. I’m getting a new job!”

Cathy stood up and left the room.

The column is a good reminder (to me!) to listen better to all stories, especially those involving suffering. It seems like it's helpful to share a similar story (it conveys you know what they are feeling, etc.) but people about 99 percent of the time just want their story listened to.

Breast cancer treatment: choices from hell

 On Tuesday, 37-year-old Guiliana Rancic, the host of E!, will undergo a bilateral mastectomy. The young woman has been diagnosed with breast cancer; she told reporters that she does not want to spend the rest of her life  wondering if the cancer has returned in her breasts.

When diagnosed, women often have a choice among various combinations of surgery, radiation and/or chemo, depending on the stage and type of breast cancer. Rancic is choosing to avoid chemo and radiation by opting for the surgery.

Many women, who may be genetically predisposed to breast cancer, face the question of prophylactic mastectomy as a way to prevent the disease from occurring as well as ease the stress of constant monitoring.  FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) is a nonprofit organization for women whose family history and genetic status puts them at high risk for ovarian cancer and/or breast cancer. Their website offers women - “previvors” and survivors - a chance to access information and each other.

When I faced my own breast cancer treatment choices, I told my husband that I was so frightened by it all, I didn’t know where I would find the courage to do what I needed to do. In a gentle reply he said, “I have lots of courage, you can have some of mine.” Guiliana will be able to draw on the courage of all the women who have gone before her, who have made these choices from hell - and are now living healthy, amazing lives. I am happy to offer her my courage, too.

Doctor shares cancer wisdom

Our EndNotes column alternates on Tuesdays in the S-R with Dr. Alisa Hideg, a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center. In this week's column, Dr. Hideg tells readers of her breast cancer diagnosis and debuts her bald look - a result of chemotherapy treatment. She promises to tell us more in the weeks ahead.

Hideg's common sense advice and insights into a cancer diagnosis will bring comfort and wisdom.  Eating good, nourishing foods helps one to recover strength and maintain focus. Exercise keeps one's body strong and releases tension and anxiety that make their home in a patient's life.  Asking for what one needs and indulging in simple pleasure bring laughter and fun.

 How do I know that Dr. Hideg's advice is good advice? I am a breast cancer survivor…Seven years ago I spent my summer with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. I am grateful for amazing docs and faithful friends.

 Alisa, my thoughts and prayers are with you during this journey.

To learn more about breast cancer resources, go to

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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

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