Cancer, the word alone invokes anxiety and the stigma of suffering and death. When that word becomes a diagnosis, anxiety turns into terror. One of every eight women will receive the diagnosis of breast cancer
at some point in her lifetime. For one woman in eight the anxiety of “What if?” will turn into the terror of “What now?” I recently interviewed the spouse of a cancer survivor, and his words come from a wisdom created by suffering.
“It was September 22, 1998 when my wife’s surgeon called to tell us what I already knew. The large mass growing in her left breast was cancerous. It has been six years now since we experienced that terror. We were thrust into a strange new world awash in emotions, options, decisions and advice. Our days filled with learning the language and protocols of this “subculture”. Terms like mastectomy, lumpectomy, lymph edema, Cytoxan, Taxol, infiltrating ductile carcinoma, high-grade ductile carcinoma in-situ, vascular invasion, metastatic carcinoma, residual viable tumor, and cancer stages I II IIIA IIIB and IV have entered our vocabularies. We became quite versed in the ways of Oncology.”
The fear still shows through his eyes, years later, at saying the word “cancer”. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair, and continues.
“Despite treatment and her desperate fight for life, her cancer overwhelmed her. Even though she appeared to go into remission after chemo and radiation, it recurred within 6 months settling in her bones and finally her brain. My wife of sixteen years was sent home to die October 23, 2000. She died a week later, at age 38.”
Breast Cancer is the leading cause of death for women between the ages of 35 to 44. Why? Because it is not found soon enough or it’s let go too long. In our research we found case after case of women (now deceased) as young as 18 who found lumps, went to their doctors and were told they were “too young” to have breast cancer. A woman’s own vanity and denial are also primary contributing reasons for this grim statistic. Denial prevents timely treatment, and vanity prevents proper treatment.
When I discussed the statistics with this grieving husband, he said, “In response to this I have only two things to say, “Looks don’t matter when you’re dead, and death doesn’t care what you look like.”
His eyes tear up and he stares at the floor.
“I begged my wife for two months to go to the doctor after the lump was discovered. She delayed for two months and then opted not to have a mastectomy as part of the initial treatment. She only had a mastectomy after the recurrence. By then the horses had left the barn. It may not have mattered anyway, but I’ll never know. Many times my mind has gone through the “what if’s” and “if only’s” of the situation. What if she had the mastectomy? If only I had been more insistent? “What if’s” and “If Only’s” are very painful things to live with. However, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t allow them to consume what is left of my life. In the war against cancer, there can be no middle ground, no mitigating circumstances, and NO TRUCE. Don’t let cancer sneak up on you, or ever turn your back on it. What you don’t know can KILL YOU. This applies to you guys too.
Now his face shows a determination of a fight that he fought with his wife, and lost, but is willing to fight again for a friend, or another loved one, or even a stranger. He continues to explain from his heart.
“Self-awareness, clinical exams, and mammograms are the only way to minimize your risk of going through the HELL my wife had to endure. How many of you are 36? How many of you have had your baseline mammogram done? If Theresa would have had her first mammogram done at age 35, we might have caught it while it was still tiny and impalpable. A woman I know from my office thought “I’ll go next year” but I think my prodding changed her mind. She went for her scheduled exam, and they found cancer. She was treated and has been cancer free ever since. If she didn’t get the exam that year, her cancer would have been allowed another year to grow or metastasize. A year is an eternity at the cellular level.”
“Historically, science has always lagged behind reality in its assumptions and assertions. It was only a few years ago that they lowered the age for annual mammograms from age 50 to 40. My wife didn’t make it to 40. Even if your health plan won’t pay for what they now call an “unnecessary procedure”, what is a $100 annual investment versus possibly losing the rest of your life? I just don’t want to see anyone else become part of the statistics that convince the medical community years from now to lower the age to 30. I have heard woman say how much it hurts to get (as Rosie O’Donnell calls it) “squished”. I can assure you, that the annual discomfort of a mammogram is nothing compared to the agony of cancer-infected bones and joints, or watching your wife become a child and slowly die. Toward the end, my wife’s doctor had to turn the morphine up so high that it nearly killed her just to get the pain under control. Be self aware, have your clinical breast exams performed by a doctor, get your PAP smeared and your MAMMs grammed every year. DO IT. You may well spare yourself and your family a lot of pain. No matter how young you are, talk to your doctor about prevention, and search the Internet and other information sources for yourself.”
I sit speechless and listen to him, realizing he has written my article for me and done the research. I admire him for his determination to help others.
“Until this happened, I had always been an intensely private person, never letting anyone know too much about what was going on with me. What makes cancer so insidious is no one talks about it. By sharing my wife’s story, I hope to positively affect the outcome of someone else life. I have harped to women I know about this (probably to the point of annoyance). My wife’s cancer was very aggressive, and she delayed seeking treatment for only two months. Her tumor went from nothing to the size of a tennis ball in only a few weeks. Early detection and treatment are a woman’s only defense against breast cancer.”
The risk factors for Breast Cancer are:
1. BEING FEMALE (80% of diagnoses have NO FAMILY HISTORY)
2. Family History: Having a mother, sister, or daughter with it increases your risk. Pre-menopausal cancer is more likely to be hereditary.
3. Age: By age 35 your chances are one in 600 (too low for me), by 45 1 in 90, and the odds only get worse.
4. Age at Menarche: If your first period was before age 12, you are at greater risk (exposed to estrogen longer).
5. Age at first child: Childbirth over age 30 increases your risk (Hormones again).
6. Ethnicity: African American women are at greater risk.
He says he would like to add a few more suggestions of his own.
“There are several other things we’ve also learned from this experience One is to never let doctors quote odds or percentages when faced with life threatening illness. The other is that all people have to make routine cancer checks part of your medical preventive maintenance.
As I packed up my things and thanked him, he asked, “Do you think you have enough information for your article?” I assured him I did. “And have you had your mammogram this year?” Again, I assured him that my doctor would be getting a call as soon as I got home. He smiled.