Upfront about breast cancer

May 13, 2008|SANDY BANKS

It seems hard to believe in this era of pink ribbons -- when young women sport "save the ta-tas" T-shirts and high-profile breast cancer survivors like Nancy Reagan and Sheryl Crow go public with their stories. But a generation ago, a woman's fight with breast cancer was a lonely and secret struggle.

"Women were quiet about it," recalled Dave Calderwood, a Downey firefighter whose late wife, Lynette, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986. "It was a private thing -- 'That's your breast. Don't talk about that.' "

On Saturday, Dave and his son, Travis, were among 50,000 people gathered at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum who were more than willing to talk about breasts, as they walked a three-mile course around Exposition Park in the 15th annual Entertainment Industry Foundation Revlon Run/Walk for Women.

I went with a group of employees from UCLA's Breast Imaging Center, where mammography in Los Angeles got its start. They spend their days ushering women through breast exams and attending to the angst and confusion that accompanies that.

Every year, they participate in the Revlon Walk. For me, this was a first, and an eye-opening experience. I walked alongside the Armenian Moms and Daughters and the Sistahs With Hattitude; the Rack Pack and Hoofin' for Hooters; the Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild. And countless sisters, mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers and sons mourning, celebrating and cheering; people whose lives breast cancer has touched.

I can't do it justice, can't convey the emotional wallop of that morning. There were tears, but no pity. Laughter without frivolity. Shared hope and sad memories.

A generation ago there were few support groups, no cancer websites and so little in the way of treatment options that many women were too frightened to even examine their breasts.

"Thirty years ago, we had a single treatment: mastectomy," said Dr. John Link, a Long Beach cancer specialist and author of "The Breast Cancer Survival Manual," a how-to book for patients. "For young and middle-aged women, losing your breast was the worst punishment for finding a disease that one could imagine."

Now, early diagnosis is so common and surgical techniques so advanced that "women can talk about this without it being a death sentence or a mutilating outcome."

And research advances have allowed doctors to identify women at high risk, target treatment and prolong the lives of women whose cancers have spread.

Still, it was sobering on Saturday to see bibs reading "In Memory of Mommy" pinned to the backs of children barely old enough to sign their names; the poster bearing a photo of beautiful Desiree Gonzalez, who was 37 when she died in February; and the proud woman celebrating her 28-year-old daughter, "a survivor for seven years."

I thought of my own daughter, who turns 23 today -- the same age Dave Calderwood's Lynette was when she found a lump in her breast.

Her doctor originally waved off her concerns, Dave recalled: "He said, 'You're too young. Some women just have lumpy breasts. It's nothing. Go home and don't worry about it.' "

A year later, a biopsy found the cancer. Chemotherapy sent her into remission, and she was able to get pregnant. But before she gave birth, doctors found another lump.

This time, Dave said, the cancer had spread "to her liver, lungs, ovaries, bones, brains, eyes . . ."

Her doctor said she had three months to live.

Instead, she joined a trial of a new cancer drug. That bought her four more years -- time to bond with her baby son and make memories that Travis, now 16, hasn't let go of.

The drug was Herceptin, now a standard in advanced breast cancer treatment. Its development and testing were bankrolled, in part, by pledges and donations over the years from runners and walkers at events like the Revlon Run/Walk.

Dr. Link told me the prognosis for breast cancer patients today is better than ever. When he began his practice 30 years ago, nearly half of those diagnosed died of the disease. Now it's fewer than 20%.

I find it hard to square that optimism with the thousands of "In memory of . . . " signs pinned to Saturday's runners. But when I begin ticking off the friends, co-workers and family members I know who survived a bout with breast cancer, I realize I've run out of fingers and toes.

Still, I worry about myself, and I worry about my daughters.

Link says breast cancer in young women is rare; 75% of those diagnosed are over 50. That's me. I feel like I've dodged a bullet every year my mammogram comes back clean. (In California, the state provides free mammograms for women who cannot afford them.)

"Women fear breast cancer more than any other disease," says Michele Rakoff, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 and now heads the Breast Cancer Care and Research Fund in Los Angeles.

"We know a lot about heart disease, what causes it, how to treat it, what to do when you have chest pains.

"We don't know what causes breast cancer. We don't know how to prevent breast cancer."

But if we keep walking and running, with our posters and signs and "I survived" bibs -- not to mention our pledge cards and checks and dollar bills -- I'm believing that one day we will.


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