Stealthily over the past year a group of enemy agents in the form of malignant cells have been massing under the banner of breast cancer to assault my life.
With the blessing of an annual mammogram and wonderful health care providers, I have learned of this threat and I am doing everything I can do to thwart it. In the course of 12 months, I have moved from being healthy to harboring a dangerous presence, causing me to look at life through new eyes, the eyes of a cancer warrior. And as the president of a women’s college, I have determined to use this evil challenge as an opportunity for good by sharing my experience broadly. I hope that I can alert others to the risk of breast cancer and the hopeful power of early detection.
Here in brief is my story. As I have always done for the past 20-plus plus years, I had an annual mammogram on Aug. 28. On Sept. 9 I was tentatively diagnosed with breast cancer, had a biopsy, and learned the next day that the cancer was stage 1, grade 3. I had a lumpectomy to eliminate the tumor as well as the surgical removal of two lymph nodes. Postsurgical pathology confirmed what I already knew, and added the good news that my two lymph nodes showed no cancer cells, suggesting no spread of cancer beyond the breast. I am healing now but will begin chemotherapy in several weeks, followed by radiation and long-term anti-estrogen medication. I reflect often on the dire consequences if I had skipped my mammogram.
As I have shared my experience, I have heard from many women and men with stories both jubilant and sad. I understand that some women fear mammography because it is uncomfortable, even painful. There are also women who so fear the diagnosis that they avoid the testing. And there are others who have been dismayed by the controversy about the efficacy of annual testing, that they have put it off. Because breast cancer strikes about one in eight American women, the great likelihood is that you do not have cancer, but if you do, early detection is the key to long-term survival. The fear and pain are a small price to pay for reassurance if you are one of the seven, but if you are the one, you may just save your life.
I accept that everything I am doing as a cancer warrior provides me no guarantee of a cure. I am convinced, however, that taking action is so much better than the alternative, and I am buoyed to learn that women who have heard my story have made appointments for mammograms, or if they are younger than 40, have learned how to do effective self-exams. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am particularly eager to encourage any woman or anyone who cares for a woman to consider the issue of testing today. Lives depend on it.
When Simmons College commencement comes in May, I look forward not only to celebrating our students’ accomplishments, but also the completion of my chemotherapy-radiation treatment. For a cancer warrior, that will be a big victory!
Helen Drinan is the president of Simmons College.