The image of my sister waiting in anger, bitterness and bewilderment will always haunt me as she was wheeled into the operating room for a life altering surgery.
Stage four breast cancer at age twenty-seven. Never married. No kids.
A double mastectomy eleven days after being diagnosed; three weeks later a round of intense chemotherapy treatments began stripping my sister of all that identifies the female body. Radiation would also take place to attack the aggressive, BRCA 2 positive gene mutation that has caused many to fight the unpopular battle with cancer. Four months earlier my dad had been diagnosed with cancer making the struggle seem inconceivable for my mom as she bounced from one bedside to the next. There was the first hair shaving party where other close friends joined in shaving curls and high lights in support towards Traci’s continuing battle against this traveling cancer. Then there was the second hair shaving party followed with a surprise ‘Bald is Beautiful’ dinner party to once again, show support in this disease that seems to attack too many women; one in every eight women to be exact. They don’t teach you in beauty school how to deal with the emotions dealt with as you take away what many women care so much about.
It’s been eight years since my sister Traci was diagnosed. She’s had reconstructive surgery, as well as inconceivable surgery to remove her ovaries as they were producing hormones which the cancer was feeding off from. The cancer has spread to her lungs and multiple bones forcing many new treatments to be tried, insurance claims to be approved, up to twenty pills a day ingested and an emotional roller coaster anyone, thrill seeker or not, would shutter to think of approaching another go around. Even as I write this, my sister is scheduled for yet another PET scan to determine where the cancer is active again as the bone and CAT scan were inconclusive.
Tumor markers rise and fall. Complications and side affects become part of daily life. Chemotherapy diets consist of what seems to be the favorite: Jelly Bellies. Pink ribbon attire is normal; talk of Boo Boo’s, Tata’s, The Girls, Boobies and anything else that refers to the breasts is part of many conversations on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. This is the life for someone who is fighting breast cancer. It’s real. It’s painful. It’s emotional.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. What does awareness mean? Does it mean we say yes to donating an extra dollar at the grocery store check out line? Does it mean we share or like a Facebook post about breast cancer? Do we participate in a Race for the Cure event or slab a sticker to our car to be noticed? Personally, it means I acknowledge the fight those closest to me fight everyday; my Sister, my Grandma, Lorna, Victoria, Aunt Carol, Kim, Kathy…Awareness is showing your support to those who take pills daily for maintaining the remission or continuing the treatment. It means to become aware of those supporting the patient; driving to and from doctors appointments, making meals for the family or providing a warm hat to cover the fuzz that was left after chemotherapy stole the beautiful curls prior to the diagnoses. It’s more often those encouraging the patient, rather than the patient themselves, that struggle most during a cancer battle. Watching my parents pray fervently for my sister and stand beside her at most every appointment is exhausting. A parents love will do anything. My kids only know Auntie Traci to be sick. It’s normal for her to be bald and expected for her to be tired. The beauty in this, has been her faith and attitude towards the cancer journey which has been inspirational at the very least.
How Can You Become Aware?
1.) Know what you’re supporting. Awareness is huge; only metastatic breast cancer kills. Did you know that only 7% of funds are used to fight metastatic cancer? That means cancer that has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes. Ask what the financial break down is of a donation before you write the check. Research the organization before supporting or find a local family and support on an individual basis. Check out www.metavivor.org for more information about breast cancer. I have participated in two Susan G. Komen 3-Day walking events in Seattle, WA. They were incredibly encouraging as I too, needed the boost of inspiration to help fight alongside with my sister. Our kids recently walked a 5K at the Race for the Cure in Portland, OR. If you’re intimidated by walking sixty miles then go and cheer others on!
2.) Self Awareness. I have had a mammogram every year since the age of twenty-six. I check my breasts often and have also had the genetic testing to see if I carry the gene mutation which my sister tested positive for. Know your family history and don’t ignore the signs. Become familiar with the symptoms.
3.) Send some encouragement. There are many young families going through this cancer journey with young kids right besides them. Find a family near you to bless with a meal; provide a date night for the couple or grab a rake and do some yard work to take the stress of home chores off the healthy spouse. Many survivors have their journeys documented. Get to know them and don’t be afraid to ask them how best you could encourage them as they face the dreaded treatments. Find your local oncology center and ask how you can get involved or make a difference.
Meet a few women who are staying positive as they fight against a cancer that takes too many women every year…
Traci – My Sister’s Journey
Sarah – A new mom, a wife & friend
A Team of Sisters – Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Racing Team