Alexandria, VA – I’m a survivor of breast cancer. Twice. Both times I found the lump myself.
The first time I was relatively young, 39. I made appointments with my gynecologist and with Georgetown University, which I had read was doing a breast cancer study at the time. My thought was to take whichever appointment came in first and cancel the other. My gynecologist came in first and encouraged me to participate in the five-year Georgetown study. I did.
After watching the growth for a year, they recommended a biopsy.
I didn’t think I had breast cancer when I was seen by the surgeon the first time. I playfully asked if the biopsy scar could be in the shape of a Raggedy Ann heart. The surgeon recommended mastectomy rather than lumpectomy, explaining it’s what he would recommend to his wife under the same circumstances. I followed his advice. He also recommended that I have the mastectomy on the spot if the biopsy revealed I had cancer. I said no. I was the single mom of four children, the youngest not quite 13. If the biopsy confirmed cancer, I needed time to explain to them what was happening. After the mastectomy, I opted to forego a hysterectomy despite the link between estrogen and breast cancer. I didn’t want more parts of my body cut away as a precaution. I think now those were good decisions for me.
Forty-four years later, in March 2021, I opted for a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy–the right decision, I think, for me now. On the day I was scheduled to see my primary care doctor, I couldn’t feel the lump. Though I was tempted to cancel my appointment, I didn’t. My doctor didn’t feel it either. Still, she ordered a mammogram and sonogram for me. Those tests showed a difference from my last mammogram and indicated a likelihood of cancer.
What I want to say here to women is check yourself and if you notice any changes, if you have any questions, see your doctor. Even if the changes are small, even if you feel silly asking.
According to one source (1), breast cancer is the second most common cancer found in women after skin cancer. Men are also at risk, but the percentage of cases in men is much lower than for women. Detecting breast cancer in its early stages often leads to positive outcomes.
Approximately one out of every eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer, an average risk of around 13%. Women who have a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer are almost twice as likely to develop it as other women. About 43,600 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2021 from breast cancer. (www.breastcancer.org)
In 1994, after her breast cancer diagnosis, then City Manager Vola Lawson established the Alexandria Walk to Fight Breast Cancer. Since its inception, the Walk helped over 8,000 uninsured and under-insured Alexandria women receive free mammograms and other diagnostic screenings.
Due to budget cuts, the Annual Walk was discontinued in 2014, but to ensure that women who remain in need can access critical screenings, the Vola Lawson Breast Cancer Memorial Fund was established. Lawson died in December 2013. Her vision for fighting breast cancer is kept alive with the support of community members, City government, local businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Visit volalawsonfund.org/ to learn more about the fund and how to support it.
After my first cancer diagnosis, I switched health plans to Kaiser Permanente. As a single mom, I didn’t want to think about whether I could afford to see a doctor. I was blessed to have one primary care doctor for many years until he retired, and I am blessed to have found another caring primary care physician. I also want to give a shout out to the oncology/radiation department at Virginia Hospital Center where I went for surgery and radiation therapy. Their care team was unfailingly caring and supportive.
To some degree, I think even now, despite my prior experience with cancer, I have been in a state of denial. When the doctors explained the treatment options and assured me they would give me the best care, I thought, you don’t need to tell me this; I’m not really sick.
I am just now beginning to accept that I had cancer. Twice.
When I completed the last radiation session, I was given an angel pin, something given to all the patients who complete their programs. It’s a small thing, but it feels really good to have an angel on my shoulder. I sent them a print of my “Welcome Hope” mosaic as a way of thanking them.
I am indeed fortunate to have a team of skilled and caring professionals looking after me and an angel on my shoulder.