More than 20 years ago, while volunteering at a breast cancer screening clinic, I found myself, a non-medical professional, walking my fingertips across the body of a stranger. My job was to hand each woman’s chart to Dr. R., also a volunteer, refresh the exam table between patients with a crisp new length of white paper, and serve as a chaperone. The turnout was low, and the pace was slow — until in walked a petite woman with beautiful skin and thick wavy hair a striking shade of strawberry blond. She moved stiffly, her knees unbending, her arms, hands, and fingers curled at odd angles. Her chart revealed that she was 40 years old, had suffered from arthritis since childhood — and was here because she had felt a lump in her left breast three weeks earlier.

Her disability prevented her from climbing onto the table, so Dr. R. lifted her up and helped her to lie back. As he gently kneaded her small breasts, he said, “Yes, there is a lump here. You need to do something about this. You must do something about this.” Then, “Would you mind if the trainee examined this?”

She agreed, and that’s when I felt it, the sinister squatter that had taken up residence in the body of this woman who’d never laid eyes on me before. It was hard, the size and shape of a walnut, and lodged firmly just behind the nipple. I will never forget how it felt when my finger tripped over it, like a toe trips over a stone in soft sand; if I ever feel such a thing in my own breast, I will recognize it for what it is, get help — and in my heart thank the strawberry blond woman for her extraordinary gift to me.

Afterwards, Dr. R. pulled his stool up close and spoke kindly and frankly to the woman, outlining what the next weeks and months would likely bring — the mammogram, the biopsy, the treatment options, the possible loss of her breast. The details of this litany escaped me. In my mind’s eye I saw my grandmother changing clothes years after her own mastectomy, her chest flat as a board, the area beneath her arm concave where cancer-stricken lymph nodes had been removed, as if a big bite had been taken from her side. Is this what was in store for the redheaded woman? For any woman who develops breast cancer? For me?

Thankfully, no. The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer have come a long way since my grandmother’s bout with the disease. Biopsies and lumpectomies typically are often removed through the area around the aereola, so that the breast has very little distortion. Even when a mastectomy is necessary, reconstruction of the breast can begin at the time of that surgery. This is what money given by so many over the past 20 years has yielded: earlier detection, improved treatment, and a better quality of life after diagnosis for a great percentage of women.

October is officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we at WVFC hope that we can be as helpful to you in the coming four weeks as the strawberry blond woman I encountered two decades ago was to me — by providing informational, practical, and inspiring content about the most common cancer among women.

We also would like to hear from you. What stories do you have to share about breast cancer — your own or that of a friend or loved one? What questions do you have for the breast specialists on our medical advisory board? Please add your voice to ours, share your story, your thoughts, your observations. And for inspiration: Check out this rousing sequel to last year’s Pink Glove Dance. Enjoy!

Yours in change,

Maura

 

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  • Gina Mulligan October 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    My Story of Breast Cancer:
    As a novelist working on a story told through letters, I came to appreciate that in this age of text messages and email, we’ve forgotten the importance of letters. But not until I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 did I understand that letters are gifts with the power to heal. Knowing someone took the time and care to hand-write a note was encouraging and uplifting. After coming home from radiation, I would read the cards lined up on my kitchen counter and know I wasn’t alone. Today I’m cancer-free, and I’m convinced those special letters helped speed my recovery. From my experiences, I started a charity called Girls Love Mail. The goal of Girls Love Mail is to encourage newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with the gift of a hand-written letter. It’s so simple. We don’t keep emails, but letters are sacred mementos that we save in decorative boxes. For me, starting Girls Love Mail was one of those AHA moments. And two and a half years into my story of survival, I still pull out my cards and know that I’m not alone.

    Reply
  • Kathleen O'Keeefe-Kanavos October 1, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    I would love to share my story of surviving breast cancer- twice. Here are the beginning paragraphs of the article I would like to send. Please contact me if you would like more.
    We Are Not Alone (1006 wds)
    Cancer is Humbling. It is guaranteed to knock you down with its series of crises, beginning with discovery and continuing through treatment, often with no end in sight. Upon hearing a cancer diagnosis, many people feel devastated, confused and alone. However, nothing could be farther from the truth: Even in our darkest hour—we are never alone!
    I know because I am a two-time, twelve-year breast cancer survivor who found out the hard way that not all cancers are discovered by conventional medical tests. Intuition can play an important part in diagnosis and survival. Intuition is defined as instinctively knowing without conscious reasoning. The healing power of humor, prayer, and spirit taught me to; Take care of your spirit and it will take care of you.
    Kathleen O’Keefe-Kanavos
    http://www.survivingcancerland.com
    [email protected]

    Reply
  • RozWarren October 1, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Great essay!

    Reply
  • b. elliott October 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Very powerful! Thank you for sharing.

    Reply