Walking into a breast cancer support group with my camera bag over the shoulder, I felt like a pair of combat boots among ballet slippers, little realizing I was about to get a lesson in living.
Ilona Swenson had talked me into covering the session, hoping an article would help get the word out that this group of cancer survivors was eager to help women cope with a life-threatening trauma that affects about one in eight women — which works out to maybe 1,200 residents of Rim Country. I had braced myself for the story, expecting to emerge frightened and depressed.
Swenson introduced me to the group, motioned me to the food table, and said, “Eat, then we’ll talk.”
I sat next to Ilona as she instructed the ladies to tell their stories; “it doesn’t matter if it’s long or short, just inform the group of your situation and how you feel now,” she told them.
Around the table, these women spoke in turn, releasing their situation, calmly, matter of fact, as if they were commenting on a weather report.
Swenson had a modified radical mastectomy 30 years ago and is an encouraging, high-spirited woman with a sunny disposition.
Aggie Hanson discovered her cancer in ’93, had chemotherapy and is currently taking a new pill that is working well for her. She is a strong proponent of self-examination, immediate action, and maintaining a positive attitude.
Barbara Cox discovered her cancer in 2009, moved quickly, had radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, but has put reconstruction on hold.
Tex Ann Kraft’s family relied on her friends and is thankful for their support. She decided early on to take care of herself and approach her cancer from a point of love and believed in the best possible outcome.
What does that mean — A point of love? To embrace those who are helping you, to accept their help, to understand this life-changing event may open doors not even noticed before, to discover how strong, open, flexible, meaningful and different your life has now become. It means trusting those who have been here before you, trust in your own strength and remaining positive about everything in your life.
Once around the table, Swenson looked at me and asked “Any questions?”
My combat-booted feeling got really heavy, I blurted out, “How did your husbands and family react?”
One woman said, “If you measure yourself by the size and popularity of your breasts, your focus of who you are as a person, is misplaced.”
Barbara Bennett said, “My husband rubbed my bald head and said I was beautiful.”
“My husband cried,” said a voice from the group. “My sister laughed and said, ‘You flashed my breasts when you were younger and that wasn’t going to happen anymore.’ Her sense of humor helped me cope.”
“I had a good attitude and so did my husband.”
How can one speak so calmly about such a traumatic event? The phrase breast cancer, sends shivers of fear into most people when told it has happened to them. Every year, nearly 300,000 American women and a surprising 2,000 men get the dreaded diagnosis — although the incidence has declined along with a reduction in the number of women undergoing hormone replacement therapy after studies demonstrated a link to breast cancer.
Still, the disease kills roughly 40,000 women in this country annually, despite a steady decline in death rates, which probably reflects a heartening rise in early detection through self-examination and mammograms coupled with advances in treatment. Still, breast cancer remains the most common cancer threatening women, accounting for 30 percent of all cancers.
The striking phrase, “Scared to death,” was repeated by every woman in the group. But they didn’t let that freeze them into inaction, now that they’re among the 2.6 million women who are breast cancer survivors. Another phrase within every conversation was “early detection.” Looking that up I found a surprising statistic — “When breast cancer hasn’t strayed outside the breast, the five-year survival rate is close to 100 percent. So early detection through regular examinations is crucial. Women should begin doing monthly self-exams at age 20 and ask their doctors to do clinical exams at least every three years. By age 40, women should have annual mammograms and breast exams by a physician, in addition to monthly self-exams.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women (lung cancer is first). Fortunately, breast cancer deaths have been decreasing since 1990 as detection and treatment improve, reducing the mortality rate to 3 in 100.
Doctors say that 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are related to genetic factors, but 85 percent occur in women with no family history.
Listening to these women speak of their events with such matter-of-fact phrases, I thought of the movie “Zorba, the Greek,” and the phrase he spoke to his young friend, “You must take time to dance, and this is a time to dance.”
What he meant was, when you have just been hit by a terrible occurrence, you must remember to celebrate your life. You are alive, you have escaped the clutches of death, you can still dance as never before.
These women are dancing, having now experienced life more fully than people who believe cancer is the end of the world for them.
They are all Zorbas and kick their heels at tragedy and embrace life with new fervor. They will live full lives.
My combat boots didn’t seem so heavy anymore. I left lighter, not exactly dancing, but, optimistic, knowing there are great people in the world who change lives by believing the best possible outcome is within their grasp.
The group, Reaching Out Breast Cancer Support Group, meets the second Thursday every month at the Mount Cross Lutheran Church log cabin building.
It is an informal group, gritty, to the point, but immensely soothing and sympathetic to those who enter and find out, help and comfort is out there. There is help, there are women who know, have been where you are now, and understand the table turning, upside down world you are now in.
To request a visit from a Reaching Out volunteer, contact Susie Bossert, 928-580-0817 or Barbara Sapp, 602-397-0267.