A slip of paper with the information below was handed to me by one of the brave women I had the pleasure of knowing during the meeting of a local support group. She said, "Whatever you do, make sure at least one person reads it."
"Of all the cancer related deaths, breast cancer is the second cause of death after lung cancer among women. This disease strikes the male population as well. An estimated 40,200 women will die of breast cancer this year, but many may be spared by early Detection. Some medical providers may be offering low or no cost mammograms.
Some referrals for information:
Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization 1 800 221 2141
National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations 1 888 806 2226
National Cancer Institute 1 800 422 6237
Komen Breast Cancer Foundation 1 800 462 9273 or 1 800 IM AWARE
American Cancer Society 1 800 227 2345 "
I had asked a friend to ask the group to let me sit in one of the survivor meetings. When the group accepted my presence, we met in a comfortable lounge with five wonderfully vibrant women and two robust men, all ranging in ages from twenty-eight to sixty-four who had come together to talk about their battles of survival and their innermost feelings . They told me that they were twenty-two people but a few could not make it to this session. Having two men in a group like this was unusual because men refused to tell their problems in a group setting, especially about a disease like breast cancer that is known to be a women's malady.
Celia, the first one who spoke, was twenty-four when her cancer was detected. Now, she is forty. She said, her cancer comes back uninvited every few years. She is currently under treatment again. There were times when she wanted to do away with herself to save her parents the heartache and trouble. She still has awful nightmares. The night before she had a hippopotamus chasing her into a lake filled with milk. Celia is a very bright woman. She does not easily give in to depression and has an indomitable spirit. She said what she tells here to the group, she'd never tell her family or to her doctors. The group has always understood and respected each other's confidence.
During her first round of treatments, Celia got to know one of the male social workers. It was the best time in her life, although she looked awful with no hair and an uncontrollable nausea. He became her lover while she was in treatment. She said, he held her while she vomited, took off from his work to be with her on her bad days, and waited for her at the door while she was going through chemotherapy. As soon as she was given a clean bill of health, he left her; She was devastated.
"Why is it," she asked the group, "Some men love women only when they are in despair?" Then she answered her own question, "Saving the damsel in distress syndrome! It inflates the male ego."
I could not help but reflect that this affair had hurt Celia more than the illness. Still, she tried to have a positive attitude and considered herself a survivor, even though her cancer had returned again.
Eileen, the bubbliest in the group, was forty-one when the cancer was discovered. There was no breast cancer in her family. She was an athlete who ran every day and played singles tennis twice a week. She ate a low-fat diet with practically no red meat. Moreover she had a mammogram done when she was thirty-five and then another one when she turned forty. Both those mammograms' reports were clean. Fortunately she examined herself repeatedly. Several months after her last mammogram she discovered a lump in her right breast. Three months later she went in for a follow up and had a biopsy. The diagnosis was benign but the doctor called her back in three months.
When she went back, the same spot showed some scar tissue. She was not afraid because she was trusted in her first biopsy. She said, at the time, she had a 'this can not happen to me' attitude.
This time, however, things were very different. The breast cancer was in her body, but Eileen was not going to give up. She obtained all the information she could get her hands on.
She says she went through a wide range of feelings. The strongest emotion she felt was anger. She went around the house kicking in the doors.
Eileen is one of the lucky ones. She is healthy at the moment and has finished her last reconstructive surgery. "Thanks to advances in medicine, my figure looks better than ever," she said jokingly.
Martha has raised two children to adulthood after her cancer was discovered fourteen years ago. She has a wonderful, supportive, sunshiny attitude and she is a joy to be with. She has just retired from a twenty-five year teaching career.
Martha says she was not always like this. She went through all the emotions and then some. Now, she is learning to play the guitar, something she warned for all her life. She is also very active in the affairs of her church. She prefers to believe that she is living with the cancer with gusto and in spite of it. She has done a lot to bring about cancer awareness nationwide. She has even attended fancy parties without a wig. "I try to make at least one person aware per day," she said.
The oldest one in the group that day was Paul. Paul was already suffering from skin cancer when the breast cancer was discovered four years ago. He went to see a surgeon in another state because this surgeon was one of the few doctors around who specialized in male breast cancer. Paul has a wry sense of humor. He described with motives the funny incidents of himself getting a mammogram and of being filled like taffy when almost nothing was there to pull. He said all the bad feelings he had experienced were already finished with "the other C", referring to his skin cancer. So there was nothing left for this one. As he put it, he has been through the "four horsemen": Mastectomy, Chemotherapy, Radiation, Tamoxifen. He felt bad only when he discovered his wife weeping secretly before the mastectomy. He did not let her know he saw her. One person in the group suggested that maybe he should. He said he can not handle that.
Paul still cuts his own lawn and fixes things around the house but talking to the family about fears – his or hiss – is not his thing.
Sheila now believes that breast cancer is not a death sentence, even though her cousin, who was also her best friend, was diagnosed with this terrible disease around the same time as Sheila was diagnosed. Her cousin is no longer alive. "She always surprised what we did wrong," she remembered. She felt, when her cousin died in a year and a half, her life had to come to a stop also. She went under intensive counseling because of it, and she discovered that her family, her children, and her life were the most important things.
Nowadays, Sheila sees her battle as a blessing. She believes her cousin would be living now if her cancer had been done ahead of time. She volunteers at the clinic in her free time, especially counseling the newcomers.
When he too was diagnosed, Jonathan, the other man in the group, had already lost a sister and a cousin to this "woman's disease". He was furious. He blamed the medical profession, God, his mother, his wife, his co-workers, the government, and everyone in existence. After the surgery, he picked a fight with the doctors accusing them of not paying enough attention to him.
Jonathan still felt that people were more compassionate to women with breast cancer. He said he did not blame them because of the losses in his family but nobody knew how to give support to frightened men. "I am not afraid of showing my feelings on the subject but the medical profession is not ready for men with emotions," he said.
According to him the best way is what they have now, the support group of survivors receiving encouragement from each other. He said, "There would be more men here if we could only get them to agree to talk about it."
The last one of the group and the youngest, Karen, found a lump while she was in the shower. She immediately went to her doctor and asked for a mammogram and an ultrasound. The results were normal. They showed nothing nasty. Both the doctor and the radiologist thought that the lump was fibrocystic.
After a few months, Karen still had the lump. So Karen went to see a surgeon on her own. The surgeon also thought that the lump was fibrocystic. After two more months when she found few more limbs near the original lump, she forced the surgeon to remove them. On the surgeon's recommendation, she went to have a needle biopsy one early morning. Later that day the pathologist called to inform her that she had breast cancer.
At first Karen paid. She fought until she had no more will or strength to even stand up. Then she called her mother. Not wanting to face reality, her mother said, "At your age? What are you trying to pull?" Karen banged the phone down. That is when her anger surfaced and she promised herself that she would fight this tooth and nail. She told us that she owed her life to her mother for making her angry enough.
Later, it was found out that Karen's cancer was the aggressive kind. She had to go through mastectomy plus chemotherapy.
Karen's doctors are very cautious now. She is scheduled for a bone scan in a few days. Karen has read practically all the literature on the disease. She believes in her chances of survival greatly because of the recent advances in medicine. At the end, Karen recited a quote from her notebook, "The journey back is no longer or farther than the forward run." She did not know who said it, but they all agreed it could have been any one of them.
I can not help but admire the bravery of these men and women, and not only of these seven but of every everywhere, fighting with this dreadful disease. The seven I met were radiant, hopeful, and with spirit. Their courage will always be an inspiration.