The daughters of breast cancer survivors and victims emphasize the importance of prevention
Her grandmother died from it. Her grandfather, too. But when her mother received a breast cancer diagnosis in 1995, junior Catherine Rogers was too young to realize what it meant. "My mom just told me that she had a 'boo-boo' and the doctors were trying to fix it," Rogers remembers. "I guess I was too young to think that she could die from it."
Rogers was five years old at the time of her mother's diagnosis. For the next six years, she watched her mother fight the disease through chemotherapy, looking on helplessly as the cancer and its treatment took their toll. Her mother's hair fell out. She lost weight. She had to use an oxygen tank to help her breathe.
She took these side effects in stride, but her prognosis did not improve. The cancer spread, moving to her bones and spine. In 2001, when she was 44 and her daughter was 11, she passed away, a victim of the same disease that claimed both her parents.
Among American women, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 2007, the American Cancer Society estimates that 178,480 women will develop invasive breast cancer, and 40,460 of these women will die from it.
Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former senator and 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards, brought the disease into the national spotlight when she revealed on March 23 that her breast cancer had returned after two years, an announcement that prompted a flurry of coverage on the disease and its victims.
As the couple spoke openly about the illness and vowed to continue with John Edwards' bid for the Democratic nomination despite a grim prognosis, their frank discussion of the disease reflected the country's shifting perception of it: Once considered taboo, the topic of breast cancer has been brought into the public arena, increasing awareness and bolstering prevention efforts.
To raise awareness about breast cancer and other health issues, 11th- and 12th-grade girls were invited to an informational assembly in the auditorium on March 19. Led by staff from Suburban Hospital and sponsored in part by Hadassah, a Jewish women's organization, the assembly emphasized the importance of regular breast cancer screening, as the chances that treatment will be successful are higher if the cancer is detected early in its development.
Although the American Cancer Society reports that fewer than five percent of all breast cancer cases occur in women younger than age 40, Judy Macon, a nurse at Suburban Hospital, advised the girls at the assembly to begin performing monthly breast self-exams as soon as possible because a woman's chances of developing breast cancer increase with age. "Breast self-examination is one of those health habits that you can start right now," Macon told the crowd. "It could be life-saving one day."
Rogers hopes so. She and her doctor both perform regular checks for any signs of breast cancer, but the check-ups do little to ease her fears; she still worries she will develop the disease that runs in her family. "I'm at a pretty high risk," she says. "It's a hard reality to come to, to know that may be the way I die."
As Rogers and other daughters of breast cancer victims and survivors remember their mothers' battles with the disease, they struggle with their feelings, caught between worrying for their mothers and wondering whether they will meet the same fate.
When junior Rehana Mohammed learned that her mother had breast cancer two years ago, the news came as a shock. She didn't know of anyone else in her family with the disease. She didn't know anything about the disease, period. What she did know was that cancer could be life-threatening. "My grandfather had died of skin cancer a few years earlier," she explains, "so I was pretty scared when I heard my mom had cancer."
Mohammed's mother may have been the first in her family to develop the disease, but the American Cancer Society reports that a family history of breast cancer is a significant risk factor.
For senior Claire Lieberman, knowing that breast cancer ran in her family prepared her for the bad news that she got last April: Her mother had been diagnosed with the disease. With a history of breast cancer on both sides of her family, Lieberman didn't feel as blindsided by the diagnosis as Mohammed had been. "We weren't looking for it, but it wasn't a shock," Lieberman says. After Lieberman's mother noticed a lump in one of her breasts, a biopsy revealed that she had Stage I ductal carcinoma, and a subsequent mammogram discovered three tumors in her other breast. She had caught the cancer in its early stages, but she decided to have a double mastectomy, in which both breasts are surgically removed, in the hope that the radical procedure would prevent more tumors from developing. "That was a better option, considering the family history," Lieberman explains.
Banding together, fighting back
In May, Lieberman's mother had surgery to remove the cancer. She stayed in the hospital for two nights and three days, during which time Lieberman felt too worried to eat. Until that point, she had tried to avoid revealing how upset she was.
According to Lieberman, her mother made a point to ensure that her illness affected her family as little as possible, starting from the moment she found out she was sick. She was diagnosed shortly before spring break, which Lieberman was planning to spend in Georgia with friends, but rather than tell her daughter right away and ruin her vacation, she chose to wait until after the trip.
Lieberman, in turn, didn't want to divert attention from her mother and her illness by letting on to how worried she was. "I tried not to let it bother me," she says. "I didn't want to seem like I couldn't handle it."
After the surgery, Lieberman's mother underwent four rounds of chemotherapy over the course of the summer. The chemo left her exhausted and sore, her bones aching. "It was sad seeing her like that because she's really strong and kind of takes care of everything," Lieberman says. The treatment wore her mother down, but it eventually left her cancer-free.
When Mohammed's mother began chemotherapy shortly after her diagnosis, Mohammed and the rest of her family came together to help her through her treatment. Mohammed's father took her to and from her chemotherapy appointments. When she started to lose her hair, her daughter helped her cut it off, and the two went shopping for wigs and head-scarves together. On nights when Mohammed's mother felt too sick to cook, her coworkers, her neighbors and her friends from her book club made dinners for the family. "The whole neighborhood and all of the close family friends knew what we were going through, and everyone chipped in to help," Mohammed remembers. "We had such a strong support system."
After several months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Mohammed's mother was found to be cancer-free, but she continues to take medication to help prevent a recurrence. "I'm pretty confident that the cancer won't come back, but anything can happen," Mohammed says. "We're all just praying for the best."
Moving forward, looking back
When her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, Rogers remembers, the prognosis was grim. "The doctors told her that she had less than a year to live," Rogers says. "She lived for six, so something must've gone right."
For most of those six years, her mother received outpatient treatment. In summer 2001, however, she returned to the hospital for the last time. She spent the next three weeks confined to a hospital bed, but her daughter came to see her every other day or so — even after the doctors induced a coma. Rogers sat by her mother's side and listened to the quiet nose of her feeding tube, which sounded like an aquarium, she remembers. Even then, she remained hopeful. "I thought that she was going to come home sooner or later," Rogers says.
On the night her mother died, Rogers and her older sister were staying overnight at a good friend's house. Around 4 a.m., their father woke them up unexpectedly and told them that their mother had passed away.
Rogers broke down. As her father drove her and her sister to pick up their brother from another friend's house, Rogers remembers watching the sun rise and thinking about her mother. "It was kind of like she rose with the sun," she says. "It's kind of cheesy, but that's how I felt."
As the weeks passed after her mother's death, Rogers felt isolated, and she began to wonder if she could have somehow prevented her mother's death. "I just remember feeling alone, like I didn't do enough for her," she says. "It's not an easy thing to go through."
Knowing that her family's history of breast cancer means she is at an increased risk of developing the often fatal disease, Rogers is taking steps to catch it early if she does. In addition to performing regular self-exams, she receives clinical examinations from her doctor. Both Rogers and Mohammed plan to have regular mammograms as they grow older.
Although Lieberman has clinical breast exams once a year, like Rogers, she says she continues to worry about developing the same disease as her mother and her grandmother before her. She discussed her fears with her mother's breast surgeon, who advised her to have more frequent examinations when she reaches her 30s, but she's still afraid of developing cancer. "It's one thing when one person in your family has it, but when you know that so many women from so many generations on both sides of the family [have it], it's hard to have a positive outlook," she explains.
As Rogers worries about developing breast cancer herself, she remembers her mother's ordeal with the same sorrow she felt when she was 11. "It doesn't get any better, and it doesn't get any worse," she says. "The years go by, and it never leaves you."
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