Janine and I met at Relay for Life this past May. She approached me after my survivor speech and asked if I would consider sharing my journey with a group of young women at the Justice Commission, Female Secure Care and Intake Facility during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I said I’d be honored.
This past Thursday, I joined Mat Ogin, Rely for Life specialist with the American Cancer Society for our special lunch and learn program.
It’s a terribly wet day outside with torrential rains and cold winds. Inside the room immediately warms up and comes to life as the girls enter. They’re of varying ages, but most look between 15 to 17 years old. They greet me and Mat with enthusiastic, convivial hellos and big smiles. I notice several are donning pretty pink ribbons on their shirts. A few are carrying copies of my book, Pink Ribbon Journey. Before taking their seats, they grab their lunch and finger through the educational brochures we’ve put out for them.
Mat goes first, providing overviews about the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. They listen enthusiastically and ask questions along the way. When its my turn, I pass around a handout I’ve made: The Sosne-Leit Family – Three Generations of Cancer, names and pictures of the ten women in Mom’s family affected by hereditary or familial breast and ovarian cancer. Over the years, I find the guide is not only helpful, but makes it more personal by providing a face to all of those names I discuss in my breast cancer journey.
These young ladies are attentive, respectful, and thoughtful, offering heartfelt “so sorry” and “that’s so sad” as I share my story. They’re inquisitive, asking many pointed questions that Mat and I do our best to answer honestly and accurately.
Q: “Does it hurt when you get a mammogram, I heard it does?”
Me: “Well, you know it’s been many years since I’ve had one, but I do recall it being very uncomfortable. It’s only uncomfortable for a short period of time. And well worth it for a test that could save your life.”
Q: “Can you get cancer anywhere in your body? I heard that boys can get cancer down there, is that true?”
Mat: “Yes, unfortunately cancer can grow in any part of your body.”
Me: “Men can get prostate cancer, this might be what you’re referring to, so yes they can get cancer down there.”
Q: “If you get breast cancer, can it go to somewhere else in your body or does it stay in the breast?”
Me: “Every person’s cancer is different. But yes, breast cancer, depending on the size of the tumor and what stage you’re diagnosed, can spread to other parts of the body. Any cancer can spread to other parts of the body. The key is to finding the cancer early in a curable stage.”
Q: “So, you said there’s something called a lumpectomy, what exactly is that?”
Me: “A lumpectomy is when the surgeon cuts out the tumor and a surrounding area of clean tissue, leaving the breast in tact”
Q: “I had an aunt who had cancer, and her hair ended up falling out. That was scary.”
Mat: “Hair loss is from chemotherapy. It sounds like your aunt probably had it and that’s why she lost her hair. But it always grows back. At the American Cancer Society we have a program TLC that provides wigs for patients who’ve lost their hair during treatment.”
Q: “I was wondering, does breast cancer only grow in big breasts. You know, look at me, how could I even tell it’s there?”
Me: “That’s an excellent question. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. It grows in small breasts, big breasts, in breasts of all shapes and sizes. This is why it’s very important you all do a monthly breast self exam, to help you become familiar with how your breasts look and feel. If you feel something unusual you should seek medical attention. And make sure you also squeeze your nipple at the end of the exam. You know why? Because, you need to check for nipple discharge. The only time you should ever have discharge from your nipple is when your breasts are producing milk for nursing a baby. It is NOT normal to have discharge coming out of your nipple, so if you have it, you need to inform your doctor. That said, it is also not normal for your breast to be red or hot to the touch. Your breast should never be like this, and if it is you need to seek immediate medical attention.”
Q: “How would I even know if my breast is red with my dark skin?”
Me: “ Great question. You will be able to tell that your breast is not looking normal. You will also be able to feel if it is warm or hot. So, if it looks normal but it is warm or hot to the touch that’s the sign of something being wrong. You still should go to a doctor.”
Q: “You said you had a mastectomy. How does the doctor take off the breast?”
Me: “I had what is called a skin sparing bilateral mastectomy. Essentially what the surgeon did is sort of core out the breasts like you would an apple, removing everything on the inside but leaving the outside skin in tact. Then using my pectoral muscle and breast implants he created new breasts. But not nipples, I don’t have areolas or nipples anymore.”
Q: “You don’t have nipples! How come, what do you mean you don’t have nipples?”
Me: “Well for one thing, my cancer grew immediately outside the nipple…
Q: “Oh my God, you mean cancer can grow in the nipple?”
Me: “Yes cancer can grow in the nipple. And for that reason alone, I chose not keep them. Although not every surgeon does the nipple sparing procedure.”
Q: “Wow Mat. You’re really super tall. Do you play basketball?”
Mat: (everyone laughing) “No, actually I don’t. But I get asked that question A LOT. I do play volleyball, I’ve played for along time, and am in a league for it.”
After the questions, I pass around the Breast Self Exam Guide compliments, of South Jersey Radiology, and we all, sans Mat, do a pretend breast self exam.
At the conclusion of our breast health education program, a few girls ask me to sign some copies of my book. Before leaving, one of the young ladies takes off her pink ribbon and hands it to me. “I want you to have it,” she says. I decline, telling her she should keep it, it’s so pretty. She shakes her head no, “It’s my way of saying thank you for coming to be with us today.”
Moral: Breast health education needs to start early on in order to Big or Small Save Them All.