The lump felt firm but soft like a plump grape. My mother had grasped my left hand and placed it under her shirt to feel the lump in the side of her right breast. It was such a foreign action from her in a household where we never saw anyone’s body, much less touched so private a part. Not even my father and older brother ever went shirtless to mow the lawn, and the bathroom door was always shut tight every time any one of us took a bath or changed clothes.
Bodies were always shrouded in mystery. Now my mother was trying to show me another one: this mystery of the lump. It wasn’t her first. She had had one before in her left breast that she had not told anyone about. My brother had just then been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and she dutifully went to the hospital, had a radical mastectomy, and hoped to bounce back to take care of him when he went out of remission, which came all too soon. She had not had chemotherapy nor radiation afterwards. She had insisted on returning home and trying to get back to what was normal for her. Back then, in the early 1960s, she had been told that if she survived six years, she would be cured.
It was in the summer of that sixth year, some three years after my brother had passed away, losing his own battle with cancer, that another lump had appeared in my mother’s remaining breast. This time, my mother was desperate, not to get on with her life because she had an ill son–he was now gone–, but to prevent another child from living through what she had. She had grabbed my hand and said, “I want you to know what this feels like, just in case.” Then, she had lifted her shirt and showed me the horror of her radical mastectomy scar.
At twenty-one, I don’t know what was the most shocking thing I saw at that moment: To look at a woman’s torso and see only the flatness of her ribs like that of a skinny child, or the fact that I was looking at my mother’s naked chest. But the lesson she was trying to teach was indelible. My mother knew that she wouldn’t be the only one to have this disease. Her mother had died at 52 of breast cancer, and later after my mother had passed, breast cancer took two of her sisters.
For over forty years, I have dutifully examined my breasts every month, trusting my fingertips to know when something was not right, hoping that some day they wouldn’t stumble upon that soft but firm grape under my skin. Since I turned 50, I’ve added yearly mammograms to that regimen. Though I realize that as I age my chances of finding that small lump get higher and that I will risk having more serious cancers (About two out of three invasive breast cancers are found in women 55 or older.), I don’t really have fear about it for myself any more. What I fear now is what my 33 year-old daughter will face, especially since she has not had a child before she was thirty or will not breast feed, factors that have been shown to reduce a woman’s risk of the disease.
Many women, like my own mother, are reluctant to go to the doctor about their disease until they can’t avoid it. With nearly 288,000 cases of breast cancer estimated to be diagnosed in the US this year, it is clear that education about early detection is crucial.
It is different today when women face this disease, unlike my mother who did not understand what was happening to her body and who grabbed my hand, not just to educate me but to connect with another woman, to share the horror she was experiencing by her own ignorance. Not only are there advances in surgery and chemotherapy, but there is more education and support. Women today don’t have to face this disease knowing little about it and bearing it in lonely silence like my mother and grandmother did. They can learn about how to prevent this disease, how to detect it early, and how to survive it once they are diagnosed. And most importantly, they can reach out to other women who are living with breast cancer or who have overcome it, who know exactly what they are going to face because they’ve been there before. There truly is power in that kind of support.
Senator Olympia Snowe, a Greek-American woman from Maine, has been supporting breast cancer legislation. Her bill, The Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act of 2005 (S. 910), requires insurance plans to cover a minimum hospital stay for mastectomies, lumpectomies, and lymph node dissection and to pay for a patient seeking a second opinion.
Websites and Organizations
The American Cancer Society offers literature about breast cancer screening and encourages monthly self-exams for all women and a yearly mammogram for women over 40.
Their Cancer Survivors Network is an online support service.
This website offers information, forums, and online support.
Y-ME Illinois, part of a national breast cancer organization, brings breast cancer information to the workplace, community organizations, and retirement homes. Their Just for Teens Program speaks to girls in their senior year in high school.
Besides education, Y-ME Illinois offers more, completely free of charge. “The bedrock of our services is really support,” Alicia Huguelet, Director of Advocacy and Communication of Y-ME Illinois, says. Serving approximately 30,000 women a year, Y-ME Illinois focuses its support to those who have been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, their families and their friends, and to long-term survivors. The national Y-ME organization offers a 24-hour hot line, in English and Spanish, with the capability of finding translators for 150 different languages. Locally, their open-door support groups help the newly diagnosed needing to talk and cry and rage about her disease and the long-term survivor who wants to know about research on relapse or wants to get involved with advocacy.
Y-ME Illinois also has a wig and prosthesis salon. “It is in our office in Chicago,” Huguelet says, “but we service the entire state of Illinois via mail.” A trained fitter helps women find the perfect prosthesis after a mastectomy and fits women for wigs after they have lost their hair through chemotherapy.
In addition, Huguelet says, “Y-ME Illinois partners with the Aveda Institute of Chicago for what we call the Y-ME Wellness Spa. It is an evening where we offer free spa services to breast cancer survivors.”
All of these services are good, but they have become life-changing because Y-ME Illinois puts a face on breast cancer. All of their educators, support group leaders, hot line counselors, and even the fitter in the wig and prosthesis salon are breast cancer survivors. These women know what living with breast cancer is like and they can speak to woman like no one else can. They also make it very clear that a woman need never face her disease alone.
Uplift: Secrets of the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors
(Simon & Schuster)
Delinsky, a breast cancer survivor herself, combines her own story with those of 350 women across the country. The book offers not only emotional support but practical advice about those little things that only other breast cancer survivors could ever know about, such as what kind of deodorant to use during radiation treatments or what to do to minimize nausea during chemotherapy. All of the proceeds go to breast cancer research, and Delinsky has also formed a foundation to fund two breast cancer fellowships: one trains a breast cancer surgeon and another funds surgery, training, and research.
A Breast Cancer Journey: Your Personal Guidebook, Second Edition
(American Cancer Society)
This manual has updated information about diagnosis, treatment options including alternative medicine, wellness plans, and support for family and friends.
The Breast Cancer Survival Manual: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Woman With Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer
John S. Link, MD
Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) during Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond
Just Get Me through This: The Practical Guide to Breast Cancer
Deborah A. Cohen
(Kensington Publishing Corporation)
About the Author:
Janie Franz – Senior Editor, comes from a long line of liars and storytellers with roots deep in east Tennessee. Honed by the frigid Northern Plains and a degree in anthropology, she has written thousands of feature and cover articles over a vast range of topics for more than a hundred regional, national, and international publications.
She has five novels published with two different publishers, co-wrote two wedding how-two books with Texas wedding DJ, Bill Cox, and self-published a writing manual, Freelance Writing: It’s a Business, Stupid! She runs her own online music publication, Refrain Magazine (www.refrainmagazine.com), is a book and music reviewer, and was a radio announcer, a booking agent/publicist for a groove/funk band, and a yoga/relaxation instructor.