Surviving breast cancer: Fight is personal for mother of 2 girls
Leslie Haywood loves life, and she was determined not to let breast cancer rob her of her joy.
Tuesdays: Your Health
For ongoing coverage during Breast Cancer Month, visit postandcourier.com/breastcancer.
Oct. 9: What’s new in breast cancer treatments.
Oct. 16: Patients are using tools such as Caring Bridge to help keep friends and interested parties updated on their condition.
Oct. 23: How is breast cancer different between ages? Compare specifically 20-somethings and 30-somethings.
Oct. 30: False positives. How common are they?
Oct. 5, 12, 19 and 26: Profiles of women who are battling or have battled breast cancer and readers’ stories (see below).
Tell us your story
Has breast cancer affected your life? Are you fighting the disease? Has it claimed the life of a loved one?
If so, The Post and Courier would like to hear from you. Tell us about your experience with breast cancer, whether it was you, a friend or a family member who received the diagnosis.
What is the worst part of the disease? What lesson did you learn that could help someone else?
Stories must be 250 words or less. Photos of you or your loved one are welcome and appreciated. Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Breast Cancer Story” in the subject line. Include your full name, address and phone number (address and phone number will not be published).
“My first introduction to breast cancer was at the age of 16, when my then-30-something-year-old mother told us she had breast cancer,” says Haywood of Charleston. “It was Stage 4 and the doctors told her she had six months to live. She is still around today. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that we knew she had been given an expiration day, so to speak.”
If you go
The 19th annual Komen Lowcountry Race for the Cure is Oct. 20 at Family Circle Stadium, Daniel Island. The event begins with a survivor celebration at 7 a.m., followed by a one-mile fun run/walk at 8:30 a.m. The timed 5K begins at 9:15 a.m.
The event is a day filled with family activities and is a great way to raise funds and awareness, says Taffy Tamblyn, the Lowcountry affiliate’s executive director. Money raised serves the organization’s 17-county service area through grants to nonprofits and government agencies that support breast health, as well as through training, workshops and breast cancer information. The early morning fun run is especially suited to families with children or anyone who wants to walk without participating in the 5K. Registration is available online at www.komenlowcountry.org.
Haywood’s mother survived thanks to very aggressive chemotherapy. But Haywood always wondered if she would get a similar diagnosis.
Tips to prevent breast cancer
Between ages 18-21, women should begin seeing their doctor for an annual physical, including a breast exam.
Megan Baker Ruppel, medical director of comprehensive breast care at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, says women should talk with their doctor about family history and when to begin mammograms. Though it is controversial, she says most physicians and breast health organizations recommend beginning mammograms at age 40 unless risk factors indicate they should begin sooner. Monthly self-exams are ideal, but only if women are taught how to do them properly and they feel comfortable with the knowledge.
Women can take steps to decrease their risk, she says.
Maintain optimum weight.
Limit alcoholic drinks to one or less per day after menopause.
Get at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted movement three times/week; 45 minutes four times/week can further reduce the risk.
Get annual exams and follow your doctor’s recommendations for screenings.
Though the chance is highly unlikely, Ruppel said, there is a small increase in breast cancer in the first year after giving birth. “It’s important to me that if a woman is postpartum and has a breast mass that she not write it off. It warrants careful evaluation.”
The GAIL online risk assess-ment tool through the National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool.
“On turning 30, I had my baseline mammogram,” she says. “When I was 34, I went — always knowing it was a possibility I would get the call. That year, I did. My daughters were 1 and 3 at the time.”
Megan Baker Ruppel, medical director of comprehensive breast care at the Hollings Cancer Center and an associate professor of surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina, says breast cancer is pervasive.
“It’s the second most common type of cancer in women,” she says, noting that the most common form is skin cancer. “One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. The peak is for women in their 60s, but my youngest patient was 19. My oldest patient was over 100.”
Ruppel says breast health begins with an important talk.
“Know your risk,” she says. “That’s a very deliberate conversation women should have with their doctor.”
Ruppel says screening strategies should be individualized based on a woman’s risk. Women at higher-than-average risk may need twice-yearly breast exams or an MRI in addition to a mammogram, for example. She says women can begin to understand their risk by completing an online assessment.
Family history of cancer, not just breast cancer, is also important in evaluating risk, Ruppel says. She encourages women to ask questions of relatives.
“The absence of a family member with breast cancer isn’t as protective as most women think it is,” she says. “The majority of women diagnosed have no family history of it.
“Be very thorough with extended family and other types of cancer. We want a lot of detail,” Ruppel adds. “Part of any woman’s wellness should be checking with family. Knowing your family history can be life-saving.”
For women like Haywood who do have a family history of breast cancer, screening should begin a decade younger than when the youngest family member was diagnosed.
Haywood was vigilant about screenings, a policy that probably saved her life through early detection.
“I knew pretty quickly that this cancer was not going to kill me,” she says. “I was ecstatic with my diagnosis. People didn’t understand that. I got new boobies and a bonus tummy tuck. Don’t cry for me, Argentina! That’s how I looked at it.”
Haywood was thankful that her condition was treatable. Knowing that, she says she could face cancer head on.
“Thankfully my mom is here, but she almost wasn’t,” Haywood says. “You mean I don’t have to plan for my kids to go on without me? OK. Bring on all the cancer you want. I think I got off really easy. I don’t feel like an inspiration. Those people who fight to the death, they’re the inspiration.”
But Haywood knows her family’s history means this fight isn’t over. She was the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Lowcountry Affiliate’s honorary chairwoman for the 2010 Lowcountry Race for the Cure and now serves on the organization’s board of directors.
“The gut-wrenching thing was the genetic legacy I had left for my daughters,” she says.
Taffy Tamblyn, the Lowcountry affiliate’s executive director, says the organization is focused on raising money to support breast health through grants and education, but it also focuses on raising awareness. Tamblyn says helping women who can’t afford mammograms is only part of the equation.
“There are a lot of women who have health insurance,” she says. “Their mammogram wouldn’t cost them a dime, and they aren’t having them done.”
Tamblyn says mothers often put themselves and their health care last.
“They’re not number one,” she says. “Our theme this year is ‘Less talk, more action.’ If you have insurance, make the appointment and go. If you don’t have insurance, you need to call this office and let us help you.”
There is hope for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Because treatment has changed tremendously, it is very individualized,” Ruppel says. “Things have become so personalized and tailored. That’s good news because it means treatment is more sophisticated.”
And Haywood hopes that progress continues, leading to a cure before her daughters reach 30 and stare down the family history of their mother and grandmother.
“My daughters are 7 and 9,” she says. “I’ve got 21 years for Komen to find a cure. It’s such a personal fight for me. These are my daughters, and they are going to be 30 in the blink of an eye. All I can do is hope and pray and work for a cure.”
Chris Worthy is a wife, mom, writer and wearer of a few other hats. Visit her online at www.chrisworthy.com.