Might Be In Over My Head…Maybe?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a month that whether you are a woman or a man, it is cool to wear pink. One in eight women will develop breast cancer over her lifetime and only about 10% of those cases are inherited…i.e. from your genes.  The highest risk factors for developing breast cancer…being a woman and aging. Yep. And while being a woman makes breast cancer far more likely than being a man, don’t be surprised, but men get breast cancer too.

Other factors include those that expose you longer to estrogen production like your menstrual history such as if you began menstruating before 12 or finished menopause after the age of 55, or if you never have children or wait until after 30. Family history does increase your chances but so does whether you consume alcohol of more than two drinks daily, being overweight, especially after menopause, and if you happen to carry the genetic mutations BRCA1 or BRCA2. And while breast cancer does cross all ethnic lines and ANY WOMAN can develop breast cancer, Caucasian women have the greatest number of incidents of breast cancer. And the American Cancer Society estimates approximately 1,660,290 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2013. I don’t know about you but I think these statistics deserve to be noticed and every woman should be aware of what possibility she faces.

If you will indulge me, I’d like to take this post to share with you about two amazing women I know and next post to share with you more clinical information such as signs and symptoms of breast cancer, steps you can take to guard yourself and work to ensure early detection as well as some of the latest developments in breast cancer screening and research.

The first lady I would like to share with you is my mother.  In the fall of 1997, my mother found a lump in her left breast. She says she was not sure why but she heard a voice as clear as day in her head telling her to do a breast exam. She had not done one is months (let’s just say ladies this is a major no-no and you should remember to do them monthly faithfully) but she listened and did one. And she found a large and noticeable lump. That began the rollercoaster ride of her cancer.  First, we, and I do mean we because either I or my aunt was with her every step of the way, started at her OB-GYN, who examined her and sent her for a mammogram and ultra-sound. He sent her that same afternoon as an urgent case.  Ok…for those who have not been through this, this is a good sign that something extremely serious is going on and that 6-letter word you never want to hear is being seriously considered.

We, she and I, went to the radiologist and at first he said, “I can’t say for sure but this looks ok.” Then he talked to someone. He changed his mind and we went back to her OB-GYN. And that’s when it was said. “You have a lump. The question is whether it is benign or malignant…whether it is cancer or not.” What happened next was a blur of tests and biopsies and consultations that ultimately came back with…malignant. My mother at 52 years old had a malignant tumor which equated to Stage 3 Breast Cancer.

From a very selfish perspective, I had lost my father a few months prior and while he and I did not have the best relationship, the fact that I had lost him and my mother now had breast cancer, I was extremely scared and faced with a very real possibility that I could also lose my mother. All because of an enemy so insidious that it attacks you from within without you even knowing.

My mother was schedule for a full radical mastectomy of her left breast. A lumpectomy was not an option. So my mother was wheeled into the OR and we waited. Waited to hear that she had made it out ok. Waited to hear that they got it all. Waited to hear had it spread.  We were rewarded with news that not only had they got it all but that it had only spread to two lymph nodes. But, she would need several months of chemotherapy and later a 5 year plan of tamoxifen equipped with hot flashes and increased risk of other cancers.

My mother and I on my wedding day

My mother and I on my wedding day

I watched my mother throw up after her chemotherapy sessions. I watched her hair fall out. I watched her cry and I watched my aunt shave her head. I helped her drain her tubes from the surgery. I watched her struggle. I saw her bald when she threw off her wig because it itched and sweat. I witnessed her strength. We laughed at her silly jokes and commentary on her situation. And 15 years later and a whole heck of a lot of hot flashes (tamoxifen side effect) later, I had her by my side as she walked me down the isle last October on my wedding day. My mother is a survivor. As I said yesterday, she is the strongest woman I know.

Another equally strong woman I know, is my friend, Sandy Boulware. She lives with Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer. Please check out her blog, Sandy’s Journey of Faith, for her on going story. I want to share a little bit of it here. She was diagnosed with cancer in April 2007 after a four month long stiff neck led her chiropractor to send her for an MRI only to discover that her C5 vertebrae was gone and the suspected cause was cancer.  A bone scan and several tests led staff at City of Hope to discover bones covered in lesions and a tumor in her breast. She did indeed have Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer. It was incurable and she was given 5 years to live. To quote her husband, “To have a mastectomy would have been a blessing but was not an option for her [with her cancer].”

To quote Sandy, “My cancer journey has been a roller coaster of chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, and ongoing treatments. I believe that God brings doctors into our lives to help us, but He is the ultimate physician, and I have seen miraculous healing as well.” I have seen and heard miracles in my amazing friend’s journey over the few short years I have known her. I think the one that will stand out most is her amazing faith and strength and conviction of purpose.

I remember her sharing on her 5th anniversary of her diagnosis that her oncologist shared with her a memory of them being in the oncologist’s office and the oncologist stating that she had at most 5 years left. Sandy shared that her oncologist remembered Sandy’s declaration clearly that day, “Well that’s just not long enough” said with such conviction and authority.  She was going to have more than 5 years. Sandy, through her faith and God’s almighty grace, has proved them wrong time and time again. She has had lesions just disappear. She has had radiation/chemotherapy make shingles disappear and she has outlived their 5 year expiration date and all to consternation of her doctors.


Sandy Boulware and her girls at our wedding

Sandy Boulware and her girls at our wedding

The challenging part for anyone who does not know Sandy and her story, is that except during her darkest times, Sandy does not look or act like one would expect someone to who has such a devastating illness. She has chaired our bible study which this year had over 200 women. She has written a blog and still does sharing her story and her amazing faith through it all. She has chaired a reading program called Reflections as a volunteer for an entire school district. She has been scout leader of her daughter’s troop and even led ten of them on a mission trip for their Silver Award. No, she does not act like you would suppose someone should act that lives with the constant pain and challenges she does. And thank God she does not. She serves as an amazing reminder of the strength of a woman and the grace of God.

And now as she faces a new dark and challenging section on her journey, at 6 ½ years of living with this cancer, as she loses her hair again, as she faces yet another chemotherapy, as her oldest turns 18, she still shines brightly. I hope you, those that read my blog, can learn from both of these strong women’s stories and be inspired. I hope you all will get to know your body and listen to it when it tries to tell you something. I hope you will remember them and any one in your life that has survived cancer or is currently living with it and support cancer research. I have two links below where you can learn more about cancer’s that effect women and how you can help.

The Mary Kay Foundation – Cancer Resources and Information

The Susan G. Komen Foundation

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