Breast cancer. They’re two small words that barely take up any space on a piece of paper, but they have the power to spark great fear, grief, sadness, and regret—and they’ve irrevocably changed the lives of millions of women around the world. Including mine.
When I was 38, testing revealed that, like Angelina Jolie, I’m a carrier of the BRCA-1 gene. I was prompted to have genetic testing after my mother and sister were identified as carriers, following my mom’s 2004 breast cancer diagnosis. Sadly, my mom lost her valiant battle the next year, just 10 days after her 63rd birthday, and within months, my younger sister was undergoing treatments to remove a microscopic tumor. I’m beyond grateful to report that she’s now a healthy survivor.
As a 40-year-old wife and mother of four young boys—and knowing my family history and genetic predisposition—I decided the wisest option for me was to be proactive, so I underwent a prophylactic mastectomy in 2007. I had reconstruction at the same time, and I’m proud to say that they almost real, and they’re spectacular!
Although many friends considered my decision to be courageous, I think it just made good, prudent sense. But it changed my life in unexpectedly positive ways. As I emerged from surgery, I could practically see the headline “Life Is Short—Choose to Live the Life You Want” flashing in bright lights. Inspired by my revelation, our family—myself, my husband, and our four school-aged sons—relocated to a new community that offered the professional, social, cultural, and educational opportunities we had long wished for. We haven’t looked back, and we’ve since discovered the true joy of living a life without regrets.
My experience has also prompted me to write an annual “love letter” to my girlfriends, telling them how much they mean to me, and urging them to do what’s in their power to achieve early detection and prevention of breast cancer. This year, I’m sharing my love letter well beyond my personal circle of friends, in an effort to urge every woman in America to empower herself by choosing knowledge over fear.
Dear Fabulous Ladies,
I treasure your friendship—no, make that your sisterhood—more than you know, and I want to make sure we’re there for each other to share life’s joys and sorrows. During the past year alone, unfortunately I can say with confidence that either you or a woman you adore has had a scare or has been diagnosed or is undergoing treatment or has tragically lost her battle. So I take this opportunity to remind you, my sisters, of 8 empowering promises to make in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month:
1. You will face the reality of breast cancer.
No one is immune, although many prefer not to think or talk about the disease—as though what they aren’t aware of won’t or can’t hurt them. Not true! It takes courage to admit that breast cancer may affect you or those you love, however, not doing so could result in tragic regret.
2. You will resolve to achieve early detection.
It’s tough to acknowledge that breast cancer could touch your life, but sometimes it’s tougher to take the first steps toward finding out, like scheduling a screening. Have a friend come over while you make the appointment, and if you find yourself faltering, repeat the tweet of actress and cancer survivor Fran Drescher: “If u catch it on arrival, 95% survival.” Pretty good odds!
Oh, and if you think you can’t afford screening or aren’t sure if your insurance covers it, please don’t give up at the starting line. Contact your health care provider and ask what your options might be.
3. You will know your family history.
Learn as much as you can, so you’ll know if you need screening earlier than typically recommended. Strong family history? Consider testing for the BRCA gene mutation. Getting the results is the scariest part of that experience. Remember: knowledge is power!
4. You will commit to monthly self-exams.
You are your best first line of defense—not your doctor. Know the look and feel of your breasts, and check regularly for lumps or changes. Regardless of your age or family history, an annual doctor’s exam is not enough!
5. You won’t hesitate to get definitive answers.
If you detect something even mildly suspicious during a self-exam, have it checked out immediately. Be proactive about asking questions and insist on further testing if you feel it’s necessary. Being “reasonably sure it’s nothing” isn’t enough in this case.
6. You will get regular screenings.
Mammograms and MRIs aren’t in anyone’s definition of fun, but they can save your life. If you are due (or overdue) for a mammogram, please call today to schedule it! If this is your first screening and you’re scared to go, or if you continually put off appointments out of dread, ask a close friend to accompany you, and perhaps plan to get lunch, a glass of wine, or a hot fudge sundae afterwards.
7. You will reach out to women who are fighting breast cancer.
Just shy of one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Odds are, you know someone who is currently fighting this disease, so let her know she isn’t alone. Reach out to let women who are undergoing treatment know that you’re thinking of them, and ask if and how you can be of help. Remember, though, to be sensitive to how each person chooses to handle things. Some women welcome support and company, while others bristle at the thought of one more person tipping her head slightly, lowering her voice woefully, and asking, “How are you?”
8. You will actively fight for a cure.
Whether you’re lucky enough to have healthy breasts, are currently undergoing treatment, or are a survivor of the disease, strongly consider helping to fund research for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. Make a donation to support the pursuit of a cure to one of the many extraordinary organizations doing invaluable, life-changing work in this area, or get involved in a breast cancer walk, run, or other fundraiser. Don’t ever think that what you can give is too insignificant; every dollar makes a difference to women who are courageously battling for their lives.
No matter who you are, what you do, or where you live, there are people who love you—family members, girlfriends, co-workers, neighbors. For the sake of all of these people—but most of all, for your own sake—please don’t let breast cancer join your list of regrets. Please do everything you can to be aware, vigilant, informed, proactive, and empowered.