Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Two Brave Women

I spent some of my Monday evening talking with two of the most brave women I’ve ever spoken with. They’re not firefighters or EMT’s; they’re not active members of our military; they are a mother and daughter who are both breast cancer survivors.

I’m doing a story on behalf of the American Cancer Society for one of my part-time gigs, the Wisconsin News Connection (Public News Service), an online news organization which reaches a stunning 45 million people every week. For perspective, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News each reach about 4 million viewers a week.

Mom is a 50-something mother of three who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis. Daughter is a 20-something mother of two who lives in Pewaukee. They’ll be participating in the Make Strides Against Breast Cancer event at Veterans Park in Milwaukee Saturday morning. The picture at the top of this post is from last year’s Make Strides event.

I call them brave because they both have absolutely horrifying stories about their bout with breast cancer, and they tell their stories with courage and deep feeling, sometimes pausing a moment when emotion overwhelms them, but quickly moving forward with the absolutely gut-wrenching aspects of what breast cancer did to their lives, and what they did to fight it, conquer it, and move forward with their lives.

There was no way the mom – Jill – could have known in 2008 that what started as an “itchy feeling” in one of her breasts would result in a double mastectomy. And there was no way that she could know that in 2013, her daughter Gina would face a diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer.

There was no history of it in their family. Neither had any of the risk factors. As it turned out, neither Jill nor Gina have the marker for the breast cancer gene. Their stories are different, but the disruption to their lives as mothers was the same – and the same as it is for literally thousands of Wisconsin women (4300 is the ACS estimate) who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Jill’s doctor called her – on Jill’s birthday in 2008 – and said she had good news and bad news. The bad news was, “you have some very bad and suspicious tissue in your right breast”. The good news was “if it is cancer, we think it’s the kind that we can get out surgically, without chemo”. 

Happy birthday, you have cancer.

Jill never did have to go through chemo, but she was suddenly faced with another big decision, and, without hesitation, told the surgeon to remove both her breasts. Jill said to me “I didn’t want to deal with it any more. I did not want to have to look at cancer again. It was just breasts. I still have my life, and that’s more important than any body part.”

That experience – I’ll spare you all the horrifying details – put her daughter, Gina, on high alert. She began doing self-exams every day in the shower. Then, suddenly, one morning in the shower early in 2013, she felt a small lump. She immediately called her doctor, and they got her in to clinic right away.

Gina told me “if I had not been so diligent in doing self-exams, I would probably not be here today, nor would I be able to say today that I am cancer free”. Gina’s odyssey was far different than her mother’s. Even though she’d done self-exams every day, her breast cancer was already at Stage 3, spreading to other parts of her body. She had to undergo 22 rounds of chemotherapy and several bouts under the knife on the operating table.

If you do not know someone who has had chemo, you may not realize what a toll each course of chemo takes on your entire body, your mind, and – if you’re not careful – your outlook on life. It can be brutal. It can be demoralizing. It makes your hair fall out and your bowels go crazy.

When you walk into the lobby at many clinics where breast cancer patients are treated, like the Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center at UW-Madison, you often see photos of women who’ve lost their hair, whose bodies have been ravaged by the chemo, which – in my words – damn near kills you before it cures you – IF it cures you. Those pictures are up there so women –and their families -will have a real perspective on what the treatment is going to do to them.

I don’t know where women like Jill and her daughter Gina come up with the courage to not only undergo the radical cures they had to endure, but to be able to tell somebody like me – a complete stranger – about it. They’ll tell you they do it because maybe just one person will hear their story, and maybe it will help give them the courage to endure the gauntlet of diagnosis, treatment, therapy, surgery, and recovery.

I’ve long said we don’t need more awareness about breast cancer. Every person knows someone whose life has been touched by it. We need a cure, not awareness.

So when Jill and Gina step to the starting line Saturday morning in the sea of pink that will surround them at the Make Strides Walk in Milwaukee, they won’t be walking to bring awareness to the disease. They will be walking – as Jill told me – to raise DOLLARS for the American Cancer Society.

Please remember that.  Dollars, not “awareness”.


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