Cancer Awareness

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Today we have a special guest blogger, our CEO Susan Braun! Today she is talking about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Enjoy!

As the most common form of cancer among women living in the United States today, breast cancer affects us all. Nearly everyone has a sister, a mother, a daughter, an uncle, a grandmother, a co-worker or a college roommate who has battled or is battling breast cancer. Breast cancer is not a rare disease. It touches everyone, and it has touched me.

When my son was six weeks old, I received a baby gift from my college roommate, Marilyn. It wasn’t wrapped, and price tags were still attached. The address label was scribbled. From someone who was maticulous by nature, with making others smile, with sending the beautiful and unexpected, it seemed “off”.

But I now understood the demands of motherhood, and Marilyn’s daughter Lizzy was only six months old, plus there was three-year-old Joey. I understood. Or so I thought.

Then I opened the card. “I’m sorry this isn’t much of a gift,” Marilyn wrote, “but it was all I could do. I found out three weeks ago that I have breast cancer.” She was in for a regular checkup. Still nursing, Marilyn pointed out to her obstetrician that she had a clogged milk duct. His face paled as he felt it and he left the room, telling her not to move. Soon, other medical staff filled the room, with exams, questions, and concerns. Within an hour she had a mammogram and sonogram; within two days she had a mastectomy.

“We’re treating it aggressively,” she told me when I called. Chemotherapy and radiation, in addition to the surgery. “I want to live — I want to be there for my children. They need me.”

I was relieved. She had her mastectomy. She was being treated. The worst was over. Besides, she was only 34. “Of course you’ll live,” I told her. And I was sure of it. We had both done our graduate degrees in health fields, and I knew I was right. “She has always taken care of herself,” I thought.  “She’s being treated at a teaching hospital. Her husband is a doctor. And she is young. “  I knew she’d be fine.

She did very well. We visited often over the following two years, except during the holiday season of 1991. In January, I realized it had been awhile since our last conversation.  But I was traveling, and my intentions never translated into action.

On January 27th, Marilyn’s husband called to tell me she had passed away that morning. “No, that just can’t be so.  She’s fine,”  I responded knowingly. “She died,” he said quietly.  The breast cancer came back, even though she was being treated. She had gone downhill very quickly.

I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know how he did. She was well. She did all the right things. She had little kids. She couldn’t die.

At the funeral when Joey and Lizzy, six and three, came into the filled church, I fell apart. Joey seemed to know it was a solemn event, but Lizzy danced in circles and showed off her dress shoes and her long curls, enjoying the attention. “Oh, what she doesn’t know”, I thought as I cried in silence.

Then it struck me how oblivious and unknowing I was. I truly believed that Marilyn had conquered this disease. I truly believed that young women didn’t die from breast cancer. I truly believed that she was safe because of her healthy lifestyle. And I was educated.

If I was unknowing and oblivious, were others, too?

The next few months was a crash course in Cancer 101, as I devoured all the information I could find about breast cancer and grilled my willing — and unwilling — colleagues and friends about their awareness. I was not alone.

Few knew the things that I did not know.I didn’t know there are far more breast cancer deaths in this country each year than there are deaths from traffic accidents.

I didn’t know that the vast majority of women who get breast cancer have no family history. I didn’t know that most women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors. Not heredity, not diet, not lifestyle. I didn’t know if she was at risk because of toxic exposures. I didn’t know the single greatest risk factor is being a woman.

I was angry at my ignorance and afraid of what it meant. If I didn’t know and if those around me didn’t know, and women were dying, what needed to be done?  

Since that day, I have spent my career doing what I can to eradicate breast cancer – to assure the best of treatment for those diagnosed today and to create a world without cancer for our children.  I’ve led the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the ASCO Cancer Foundation, Commonweal, the Cure Media Group,  served on committees and Boards at the National Cancer Institute, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, the California Breast Cancer Research Program, and others.  And now I have the distinct honor to serve as the CEO of The V Foundation for Cancer Research

After 20 years, I see that there is still a great deal we don’t know about breast cancer. But there is also a great deal we do know, and the gap between the two grows smaller each day.   There are now excellent research, education, and outreach initiatives.  We are learning more about causation and prevention.  Nevertheless, around the globe, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 30 seconds and every 70 seconds a woman dies from this disease.  Our work is not finished – far from it.  Before he lost his life to cancer, The V Foundation’s namesake, Jim Valvano, challenged us, “Don’t give up . . . don’t ever give up.”  We have come a long way, but until we no longer lose our mothers and daughters, we must continue; and until that day, we must never give up. 

We each have our stories of loss and of hope, of struggle and of courage. Please share yours as we commemorate breast cancer awareness month!