Voices of Breast Cancer: The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strengthby The Healing Project
More than 50 women and men from all walks of life who have been touched by breast cancer recount their personal journeys as patients, family members, and medical professionals. These perspectives on diagnosis, treatment, and survival are heartfelt and beautifully written, showing the reader that they are not alone. With
More than 50 women and men from all walks of life who have been touched by breast cancer recount their personal journeys as patients, family members, and medical professionals. These perspectives on diagnosis, treatment, and survival are heartfelt and beautifully written, showing the reader that they are not alone. With easy-to-understand essays on the science of breast cancer, its diagnosis, and the future of breast cancer treatment, written by nationally recognized members of the medical community, this is a required resource for any reader who is looking for courage, comfort, and strength for this very emotional journey.
This wide-ranging anthology from the Healing Project provides answers to practically anyone wondering "What now?" in the face of a breast cancer diagnosis. Patients, family and friends will find helpful information on everything from the emotional aspects of diagnosis and treatment to explanations of the different types of breast cancer. Boxes scattered throughout offer particularly good clinical information by Dr. Stephanie Bernik on everything from choosing a surgeon to the effect of chemotherapy on fertility. The breaking up of this information among personal essays, poems and meditations by patients and family members makes it easy to digest. While many writers tell of their shock and dismay at their diagnosis, there are more than a few wry laughs, too. Gayle Tanber muses on an unexpected discovery: "I had no idea so many friends had access to pot," which they offered to ease the side effects of chemotherapy. Debra LaChance created the Healing Project to provide a format for connecting people diagnosed with different diseases. Judged by that yardstick, this worthy collection succeeds very well. Photos. (Oct. 15)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Hearing others' stories is the most substantial aspect of any support group, be it Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous. These breast cancer confidences present the disease from varied points of view, male and female, as those who struggled with it put it all on the line. No two tales are the same, just as no two breast cancer diagnoses or experiences are the same. It's the universality of the emotions that links these essays and puts the human face on what can be a very scary disease. For all patient health collections.
Read an Excerpt
Voices of Breast Cancer
The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength
By The Healing Project
LaChance Publishing LLCCopyright © 2007 LaChance Publishing LLC
All rights reserved.
* * *
When I think back to 1998 and the month before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I remember my main focus was on my family and broadcasting career. Oh, I was still performing a bit, but only in very special projects and very infrequently. I still had an 11-year-old son at home (my oldest son was off at college) and that, along with work, kept me from accepting much in the way of skating.
But I had accepted an offer from my friend, Robin Cousins, to skate in a Tribute to Hollywood show. Since I had been working out a lot (and my friend, Vera Wang, had offered costumes!), I said yes to skating in the show.
The month before the show, I was working at the U.S. National Championships for ABC when I found a small lump on my chest. I wasn't worried; I'd had a mammogram and checkup just five months earlier, and I had always been very consistent about annual exams, so this only slightly sharpened my radar. I knew that I should have it checked out, but I still wasn't concerned because of the fit lifestyle I had led for 50 years.
I ended up going to my doctor, seeing a breast surgeon, taking out the lump for a biopsy — all in the week before that performance, which I still managed to skate in.
Unfortunately, while I was away the results came back positive, and suddenly I was a breast cancer patient.
I'm so glad that my instincts sent me to the doctor with what I thought would be a minor thing. I thought the visit would just be for my peace of mind, but it opened up a big new chapter in my life. Early detection is the key to just about every serious illness out there. So many can be cured or their progress slowed considerably by today's advances in medicine. My treatment was not as difficult as it would have been had I waited and the disease progressed to a later stage. At my radiation treatments, I met many women dealing with cancers that were much farther along than mine.
And that is definitely my message as I travel around the country speaking to women's health groups and healthcare providers: don't wait.
I am so grateful to have caught my cancer early. I want to encourage others to give their heath the same attention. We all need to look at the big picture of our family health history, be aware of symptoms and changes in our bodies, and to share all this information with our doctors. My having breast cancer finally made my younger sister, Maxine, get her first mammogram at age 48, which fortunately was clear. Unfortunately, two years later she died of a heart attack, another major killer of women. She had ignored the early symptoms of heart disease. I think she would still be with us today if she had only gone to her doctor with those clues. Losing her was much more painful than my breast cancer. No matter the inconvenience and fear, being consistent with your checkups not only gives you peace of mind, it may uncover an early warning sign of a disease that, with today's medical treatments, can be treated with success.
Treatment did slow me down for a while, but it also kept me here with my family, to see my boys and now my grandsons grow up. I think that's a very fair trade.CHAPTER 2
The Bells of St. Patrick's
As told to Richard Day Gore
* * *
You only turn forty once, and my Fortieth was going to be memorable. Ten days before my birthday, I decided to pull out all the stops with a big party in Manhattan. Friends. Co-workers. Champagne. Fun. Credit card in hand, I called the elegant St. Regis Hotel to book a dining room. Despite the short notice, they had one available and were more than happy to suggest catering options that would do the date proud.
But this wasn't to be just a vanity project. My birth date, December 17, has always been very special to me because it is also my mother's. We'd always celebrated together, until 1989, when she died of breast cancer. Now, as I looked ahead to this milestone, I felt the loss more deeply than ever. Her boy's Fortieth was something she'd always looked forward to, but thanks to breast cancer it was not to be. I decided this party wouldn't be just for me. As the champagne flutes were being raised in celebration of my birthday, I would propose an additional toast, to the memory of my mother, and I would ask my guests for donations to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in her name.
My mother might have benefited from the Foundation's work, had it existed at the time of her diagnosis. When her cancer was found, in 1985, detection and treatment were far behind what medical science is capable of today. Her cancer was discovered, but too late to save her. It was a horrible experience, for her and for all of those around her. Mom was blessed with a fighter's toughness and she went through a radical mastectomy, chemo and the removal of 14 lymph nodes without losing her spirit. But it was hard, terribly hard. Science simply wasn't advanced enough to head off the disease's progress. Behind her smile she faded away slowly, painfully, relentlessly. It took almost four years for the cruel disease to finish its work.
Now here I was, several years later, planning a party that I hoped would be a fitting tribute to her courage. And maybe the money I raised might save someone from going through what she had endured. With my mother's struggle in my mind more than my birthday, I reserved a private party room and spared no expense.
A few hours after getting off the phone with the caterers, I was taking a shower, my mind spinning with the details of the upcoming party. As I washed, preoccupied with list-making, my hand passed over my left breast. And it stopped. Went back. Thoughts of decorations and guest lists melted from my mind as I felt a lump under my fingers. A lump? Me? But I'm a man ... I could scarcely believe it, but there it was: hard, urgent and real. Like most other men, I might have ignored it if it hadn't been for my mother's history. Instead, I took a deep breath to keep myself from fainting.
I called my doctor the moment I stepped out of the shower. He told me to come in immediately. My day, which had begun with such pleasure, took an abrupt and chilling turn when, later that afternoon, the doctor referred me to a breast specialist with the warning that I shouldn't be surprised if I were told I would need a mammogram.
It was a couple of days until my appointment with the breast specialist, days during which my worry was constant. As positive as I tried to be, my thoughts kept turning back to those terrible years of my mother's decline. I couldn't banish the memories of her suffering. If it turned out to be the worst, I resolved that I wouldn't let myself go through what she had endured. I couldn't. The pain had been just too much.
Planning for the party, now looming ahead, gave me a little relief from my anxiety. During those days I shared my fears with only a few close friends, not wanting to make it seem more real by talking about it openly, not wanting to see all those frightened faces looking back at me. I was in constant dread. What if I had to make the unfortunate announcement at the St. Regis? That was not the memory of the event I wanted to send my guests home with.
My worries deepened when I headed for my appointment with the breast specialist at North Shore Hospital. North Shore was familiar territory to me. It was where my mother had gone for treatment. It's where she died. Back then, I would never have imagined that one day I'd be back as a breast cancer patient. But here I was, hearing the words my doctor had warned me of: I needed a mammogram. As we wrestled my scant flesh into the cold, hard and uncomfortable machine designed for a woman's breasts, the specialist tried his best to pull my mind from its funk. "You know," he said, "if this thing was supposed to look for testicular cancer, the guys who designed it would have made it velvet-lined."
But his effort to lighten my mood faded when he told me that the mammogram revealed a mass significant enough to warrant a sonogram. A few minutes later I had that procedure and in another few minutes I was told the mass would have to be removed for biopsy. For a moment my mind went blank as I tried to mentally process what was happening, then the reality of my situation crashed in around me as every fear came rushing into my mind. How can this be? Panic took hold of me for a moment, then the voice of grim logic. Wait, of course it can be. Why not? Look at Mom ...
Look at Mom ... That's just what I did. I took a breath and thought of her. I don't know what triggered it, perhaps survival instinct. But instead of thinking of my mother's suffering, I suddenly thought of her courage. While she had wasted away behind her smile, the smile itself had never wasted away. She had shown the power of the human spirit; for almost four years she had tapped into a strength no one knew she had and retained her sense of self. Sitting in the examination room, I turned away from my earlier resolve to avoid the suffering and vowed to fight.
So I put on a brave face when I saw the surgeon on the following Monday. I tried my best to smile and asked him, "Can they give me chemo that won't destroy my hair?" He was used to hearing this question of course, but not from a man. As I chatted with him about the surgery, bitter reality seemed to loosen its grip somewhat, allowing me to agitate over the upcoming party. It may seem shallow to worry about a party in light of what had happened, but I needed something else to focus on. The event was just a few days off. The surgeon sensed my urgency and scheduled the surgery as early as possible, for Thursday.
"How will I feel by Saturday?" I asked him. His silence indicated that the answer would depend on what the biopsy determined.
Thursday came, quickly. From the moment I'd found the lump, time had truly rushed by in a complete blur. In a little over a week it had swept me from doctor to specialist to surgeon and had finally thrown me into a cold, harshly lit operating room. The procedure was relatively easy, but everything was riding on what the biopsy would reveal. My father picked me up after the surgery. We were mostly silent on the drive home. His wife, my mother, had died at this very hospital. How many times had he made this same drive I wondered, as we drove away.
While the days leading to my surgery had rocketed by, now the hours dragged as I waited for the call about my biopsy results. Though now empowered by my mother's courage and my new resolve, I was still very scared and I tried to lose myself in getting ready for the party. But it was hard: mortality rates for male breast cancer are higher than for women, possibly because men are lax about checking themselves and less likely to take a concern to a doctor. I couldn't shake the terrible question: had I discovered the lump too late, as my mother had?
Friday came. The day before the party. The weather matched my mood: a cold winter day, rainy, with steel gray clouds hanging over the city. I was walking down Fifth Avenue to meet some friends for dinner, which, under the circumstances, I didn't want to do, when my cell phone rang. Its buzzing snapped me from my swirling thoughts and I realized that I was just then walking past St. Patrick's Cathedral. It was the doctor calling. My heart froze. My shoulders clenched. As he began to speak I looked at the towering cathedral and mouthed a prayer.
It was answered.
No breast cancer, just a lipoma, a benign fatty cyst.
I nearly collapsed in utter relief. I hung up the phone and exhaled a breath that seemed to have been held in tense suspension for weeks. As I strolled down Fifth Avenue to my date with my friends, I felt myself smiling for the first time in many days. I would tell them about my ordeal over dinner. I wondered, with another smile, if they would believe me when I told them that, when I hung up the phone from the doctor, the bells of St. Patrick's had begun to ring. They did ring, a thunderously beautiful song, and I'll always treasure the sound.
Saturday night arrived, and the staff at the St. Regis outdid themselves. The hotel was decorated for the holidays, and the party room was lighted with candles reflecting off the crystal glasses. The table centerpiece was a Christmas tree adorned with pink ribbons, in honor of my mother.
My guests were in a festive mood. When it came time for the toast, there was a collective gasp as I told them of my close call with breast cancer. It was only then, when I had broken the news, that the immense weight of what I had just brushed up against truly hit me. I realized my good fortune at having been given this opportunity to live, an opportunity that had been denied my mother.
My friends were moved as much by the tributes to my mother as by the holiday spirit, and were very generous in their contributions to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The party ran a couple of hours beyond what I had booked, but the hotel was in the spirit too, and let us stay on, free of extra charge.
Though it had been years since Mom passed, I felt very close to her on my fortieth birthday. In fact, it felt like she was with me at that party. I had narrowly escaped a sad walk in her shoes, and now, as the celebration went on around me, I knew that she was still walking with me.CHAPTER 3
Amazons Go Shopping
Mary E. Black
* * *
We are a family of one-breasted women. Some of us have none. Mine are in pretty good shape and have been widely admired in the past. Still are, my husband would say if asked. Good, functioning breasts, you could say, with almost four feeding years racked up on their odometer (lactometer?). Chances are they will not be with me forever: breast cancer runs in my family.
Sometimes I wonder which one will get lopped off first: the right one, which has always been a bit lumpy, or the left one, which was the children's favorite and so a bit bigger than the right, even now. "Because you were closer to my heart," I used to tell my two children when they asked me why, as babies, they liked feeding from my left breast the most.
We are also a family of matter-of-fact, overachieving women. Careers and medals and babies and ample breasts. So I have sensibly and unemotionally accepted that my breasts may be timesensitive parts of my body. I check my breasts regularly using the latest techniques and my mammograms have been more or less on time. As a doctor, I have lived with cancer in all its shades, sharing the experience with my patients and my friends as well as with my family; I hold cancer in awe but not in terror. If you get cancer, you deal with it and move on.
But recently I have been quite shaken. What disturbs me greatly is genetic screening and the new option of surgery in advance of disease. Genetic screening adds a new variable. It inserts science and a percentage of risk into my carefully balanced and accepted beliefs. Genetic screening can tell me about my 11-year-old daughter's chances, and even her chances of passing it on to her daughters in turn. This is new territory for me, and I am not at all sure of my ground.
Excerpted from Voices of Breast Cancer by The Healing Project. Copyright © 2007 LaChance Publishing LLC. Excerpted by permission of LaChance Publishing LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Healing Project is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2005, dedicated to creating a community of support for those challenged with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
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