Breast cancer survivors stand strong after battle
About 40,290 women will die from breast cancer this year.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, to many, it means more than just wearing pink in support of raising awareness.
“Breast Cancer Awareness Month is important to educate and bring awareness to the cancer research and need for funding,” said Karen Yerkes, an assistant director at the UCF Health Center. “It also provides a healing process for survivors and their families.”
For Susanna Bryan, a nurse at the Health Center, her son triggered awareness of her cancer 13 years ago.
At the time, Bryan’s 3-year-old son accidentally head-butted her right breast, which resulted in a lump the size of an almond about a month later. Bryan went to the doctor, not thinking much of the lump, but when the mammogram came back, she was told the lump was questionable.
“I have four kids, and they were all young at that time,” she said. “I started crying and I said, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to my four kids?’ because immediately my first thought was, ‘Am I going to die from this?’
“I was a single mom, and I was worried that nobody was going to take care of my kids.”
Bryan had a lumpectomy, which is the removal of the lump and some normal tissue that surrounds it, which is when a biopsy was done to confirm the cancerous lump.
“What really kept me strong, believe it or not, was my faith, sense of humor and my children, because you can’t afford to fail and just fall apart,” she said. “When you have four kids counting on you and relying on you, you got to fight. You really want to survive this so you can be there for your children.”
Bryan said her then-3-year-old son would ask, “Mommy, did I give you cancer?” but Bryan’s doctor said her son actually saved her life.
The trauma seemed to wake up the pre-cancerous cells that everybody is born with, and Bryan’s doctor said if the head-butt hadn’t happened, she would have probably been diagnosed somewhere down the line.
As the immunization program coordinator and clinical nurse educator at the Health Center, Bryan said she teaches her clients what she has learned from her whole experience with cancer — to stay proactive and pay attention to body changes.
Yerkes said women should do self-checks in the mirror monthly after each menstrual cycle to note any changes, such as lumps or nipple discharge.
“What we’re recommending these days is breast self-awareness; noting any change in color, consistency, monthly after a shower,” Yerkes said.
There are many different types of breast cancer that affect women at different stages in their lives, and Yerkes said the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends starting clinical breast exams at the age of 19 or 20 years old.
“Breast cancer is not a high risk in the age population that we serve,” said Megan Pabian, the UCF Health Center spokeswomen. “We perform breast checks at every well-woman exam and refer out anything suspicious.”
Tamra White, the mother of a UCF Zeta Tau Alpha sister, took action when she noticed a thickness in the skin over her right breast, close to her underarm, at the age of 33. However, when she went to her doctor, he ignored it. Several doctor appointments after that resulted in a shoo of a hand because she was not 40, which is the common age women are told to start getting checked for breast cancer.
However, when White saw the health nurse for her one-year employee physical, the nurse made an appointment for her at radiology for imaging studies.
“It turned out to be an aggressive form of breast cancer, and they saw five tumors,” White said. “When I saw what looked like bright stars on the X-ray, I started shaking.
“All I could think about was, ‘How would my daughters be growing up without their mom, and how would my husband be strong when his wife had just died?’”
White said there were 227,000 women and one man at the time that had her same cancer. She was placed on a drug and research trial, and is still being followed.
“The drug trial failed for me, and the doctors said my only option was surgery,” she said. “I had a mastectomy right away. The doctors told me to prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”
White wrote letters to her daughters for each of their life milestones, college graduations, wedding days and births of their first children. She even said goodbye to her husband.
“The thought of my precious sweet daughters growing up alone was worse than the thought of dying,” she said.
The day White told her daughters she had cancer, they spent the day getting their hair and nails done and went to a pumpkin patch so they could have a happy memory with their mom.
“Life is precious and it is shorter than you think. What is important in life are the relationships you make, not how much money you make or what type of car you drive,” she said. “I would rather have my house a mess and go play with my children, than have the house perfectly clean. The mess will be there tomorrow, but you might not be.
“I am thankful every day to be alive, and I try to live my life so that I can make a difference in others’ lives. It is really important that women and men know the battle that breast cancer presents. We need a cure.”
Rachel Stuart is a News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.