until it’s too late

For most of us, life is just, well, life.

Maybe we’re parents and we spend a lot of time with and doing things for our kids. Maybe we’re newlyweds thrilled just being with our new spouse. Maybe we’re artists, driven to create something new. Maybe we’re business people, students, retirees, athletes, innovators.

Our life is just our life. It’s what we know, what we do, and it unfolds around us..

…until you or someone you know gets cancer. Until it’s too late.

Cancer is all too common. There are too many stories of people, young and old, forced to fight for their lives. And it seems, from a purely anecdotal perspective, that there are more and more people who have no risk factors at all, getting the dreaded diagnosis.

Cancer might just be the one thing that touches every single one of us in some way. Some of us actually get cancer and are forced to deal with all that brings. Some of us have family members who have fought and won, or fought and lost. Some of us know people dealing with cancer right now. Some of us hear about people, people like us, fighting for their lives.

In 2008, I had a close call with cancer.  It ended up being borderline ovarian cancer – a bullet dodged to be sure. Yeah, I lost my ovaries along the way. Yeah, I lost the chance to have more children before I was ready to give that up. Yeah, I was forced into menopause about 30 years before I should have been. It sucked to be me for a while – I raged, I grieved, but I lived.

You know what’s crazy though? Cancer still touches my life.

My mom had breast cancer – fought it and won (so far). My aunt (mom’s sister) had breast cancer. She fought it, won and had it come back. Then she had to fight it again.

A parent at my kids’ school, someone I had known for years, went for her first mammogram at 40 and had stage 3 cancer. Within days she was in chemo and the fight for her life began.

A dear friend fought cancer for nearly 10 years and lost the fight almost three years ago.

Why is it, with the incidences of breast cancer, seemingly so prevalent in young women, there isn’t a way to screen earlier? Why is it so hard to get screened even when you are at risk? Why does it seem that even with all the attention given breast cancer, so many people (men and women) still get it?

I had the chance to ask some questions of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation recently. I was curious if what I was hearing and experiencing was true – is there some huge upsurge of women under 40 with breast cancer, or was I simply more aware because these women were a lot like me?

There was some interesting information. For example, did you know that women under 40 have such dense breasts it is very difficult to detect any abnormalities? I didn’t realize that – I always thought 40 was a rather arbitrary number, but it’s related to density of the breast and the historically lower numbers of women under 50 having breast cancer.

But did you also know that there is no stat for women who have breast cancer under the age of 40? Interestingly 1 in 6 breast cancers are diagnosed in women in their 40s. That makes me wonder how many of those women had the cancer earlier and simply did not know.

Why now, why write this now? This is why: the Awareness Day Luncheon – the 20th anniversary of this event – May 3, 2012 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. The keynote speaker, Rene Syler, is sharing her stories. She is a dreamer (not unlike you and I) who walked away from her life as a news anchor and towards a life of inspiration. Determined to find her own voice and to be an example to women just like her, she took a chance and decided to live life of her terms. And that is something I can relate to.

I haven’t always paid attention to these types of events, but I’m realizing it’s time for that to change.

I’m at risk for breast cancer.

I’m at lower risk because I lost my ovaries, but I’m at higher risk because of my aunt and mom’s experiences. I asked for, and was not given, a mammogram at age 37. I was too young. I didn’t have any risk factors (I was healthy, worked out, breast fed my children, drank in moderation, etc.). Oh, except for the whole borderline ovarian cancer and family history of breast cancer thing. I also asked for, and was not given, the test for the BRCA gene – same reasons were cited.

So you know what I did? I listened to the expert(s) and buried my head in the sand. Because, to tell the truth, I didn’t really want either of those things. I didn’t really want to know if I have the gene or if there is already an abnormality. I had just gone through something ridiculous and didn’t want to deal with anything else.

That was stupid. And irresponsible. And cowardly. And the only thing I could really think to do at the time – I was barely hanging on as it was.

Don’t be like me. Go have a mammogram. Do the self exam and get familiar with your breasts. Don’t assume there is enough research being done, don’t assume you’ll survive if you end up with cancer.

Be proactive. Be healthy. Be smart about your choices and be an advocate for your health. Know the risk factors and minimize what you can. Go on the walks, raise money and don’t ever assume there is enough attention being paid to breast cancer research (or any other cancer for that matter).

Don’t let it be too late…

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