What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer

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Turning Crisis to Opportunity

At the time I had my surgery, I read somewhere that, in the Chinese language, the characters for "crisis” and "opportunity” are the same. I decided to look upon my brush with cancer as a wake-up call from God—a reminder that I was not going to live forever. I am grateful to have had this experience because it gave me an opportunity to get my life priorities straight and be helpful to other women.

One of my goals in sharing my cancer experience is to remind my readers that while a home business is important, one’s health must come first or there will be no business at all. After I wrote about this topic in my newsletter, I received many calls and letters that told me that my words had jolted many to immediate action.

“Your earnest speaking out did some good," wrote Colleen. "I, too, have been putting off a mammogram until I had more time, but I called today right after reading your newsletter.” Marilyn, who was 1-1/2 years overdue for a mammogram to check a suspicious shadow that had showed up earlier, reported that my words prompted her to make an immediate appointment too. The good news was that the shadow was gone.

“I’m sure I’ve been carrying around some low-level stress about this for the last year and a half,” she said, “so I wanted to write and thank you, not only for the nudge for myself, but for what you’ve given countless others who read your article.”

Susan said my story was “a sobering reminder to all of us that we have to listen closely to that voice inside.” Ernie wrote to tell me that one of his daughters was undergoing the same treatment. “Your missive will serve as an inspiration to encourage her in her fight,” he wrote.

Support From Customers

When I could not manufacture enough energy or hours to publish my fall newsletter, I did the only professional thing I could do at the time: explain the situation in a personal letter to subscribers. If emotional well being helps in the healing process, the many cards and letters I received were terrific medicine indeed. Each time I got another positive message from one of my subscribers, I felt re-energized and doubly grateful to have such a wonderful business family for support.

In wishing me a speedy recovery, Maryn made an important point:

“One advantage of having a homebased business is having a personal touch with your customers. In times of crisis that same customer becomes an ally and is very understanding.”

Remember this in case you ever find yourself in a situation where you simply can’t do it all for one reason or another. Some people respond to crisis by ignoring the problem, but my mail proves how understanding business associates can be when you’re in trouble.

Your Attitude Does Make a Difference

It was comforting to hear encouraging words from cancer survivors such as Gini, who said that 31 years ago doctors told her she would die of cancer in six months. 

“This gets your attention,” she wrote. Radiation treatments in those days were not as refined as they are now, and Gini still has a bright red square on her skin where the radiation burned her. But she’s got a great attitude, and she made me laugh when she wrote, “Better red than dead!”

I agree with Ernie who says, “I have long believed that the proper mindset can be 90 percent of the body’s ability to fight off any intrusions.”

Although I took my cancer experience in stride, I learned in talking to the director of the cancer center where I got my radiation treatments that my response to this problem was a bit unusual. I was told that many of the women then undergoing radiation treatments with me either were fighting depression or just too embarrassed by the disease to speak about it to anyone. The director wanted to know my secret, and I told her it was a matter of attitude and that I had an edge because I’m a self- employed individual with many things to think about other than myself.

It also helped to have a good husband like Harry who always helped me find something to laugh about in the worst of situations, and would have loved me just as much if I had no breasts at all. Although I was perfectly capable of driving myself to the cancer center every day to get my radiation treatments, Harry insisted on driving me there himself every day (except weekends) for six weeks. When I asked him why he was doing this, he said, "Because it's my job as a husband to be supportive of you in any way I can." I wish all women with breast cancer had this kind of emotional support.

What truly surprised me was that so many of my readers thought it was “brave” of me to tell my story. I’m not brave at all; I’m just a writer who writes about what she knows, and a teacher who has learned that the best lessons are those taught by example. As Darla pointed out, “When someone in the public eye can admit to being real, it somehow makes it easier for the average Jane Doe to let herself feel her feelings and be real as well.”

Darla has had more tragedy in her life than she would want described here. Suffice it to say that she’s a survivor who operates on faith. “Everyone has a different story to tell,” she says, “but no one gets through life without experiencing surprises, heartache, or illness. We must go on, like it or not. Going on with a positive, upbeat attitude is one of choice, but one that makes all the difference in the world. Life is precious and it is our duty to make the most of what we have in any given moment. I believe there is always a silver lining behind clouds of gray.”

Other Responses

A number of people called to comment on my article while others responded by sending special information or books. A fellow publisher sent laughter in the form of a collection of work-at-home cartoons that had graced the pages of his newsletter in earlier years. One reader sent me a booklet and information package on the health benefits of green barley juice, which was receiving a lot of attention at the time.

Many readers passed my newsletter on to friends, and some of those people wrote to me. Lois Hjelmstad, who has operated a homebased piano studio for 37 years, said she could relate to my problems regarding treatment and energy and time. “There is no paid sick-leave or sick-days nor is there any backup,” she said. She sent me a copy of her self-published book, Fine Black Lines--Reflections on Facing Cancer, Fear and Loneliness, which I couldn’t put down once I began to read it. Through journal entries, poetry, reflective essays and pictures, this beautifully written book captures the fear, anger, loneliness and courage of one woman in facing those challenges. Many doctors and nurses have praised this book, and I do, too. My thanks to Lois for allowing me to excerpt two poems from it that spoke to my heart. 

Writing as Therapy

I fully understand the therapeutic benefit Lois Hjelmstad has received by sharing her experiences in a book. Long before I was a professional writer, I was pouring out my emotions and viewpoints in diaries, journals, and letters to families and friends. The older I get, the more I find myself expressing my feelings in writing, and it’s very satisfying to know that I have at least a small audience of readers who appreciate what I have to say. (For my thoughts on writing as therapy, and how this has helped me get through the grieving process after losing Harry, see this article  in the Writing/Publishing department.)

As one who writes not only for personal satisfaction but money, I find it interesting that so many people who begin with the idea of helping themselves through writing end up helping others and making money, too. Lois, for example, has sold more than 10,000 copies of her book and helped thousands of women by presenting more than 300 talks throughout the U.S., Canada, and England on "Cancer as a Catalyst for Change" and "The Human Side of Cancer—A Survivor's Perspective." She is currently at work on two books of poetry and prose (one on life beyond breast cancer; one on grieving a parent). Anyone who reads her first book will want to read everything she writes.

The last time I talked to Lois, she expressed surprise to hear from me at such an opportune time because she had been wondering how to get the word out about a television documentary on cancer in which she was then being featured. (Titled "Living With Cancer, A Message of Hope," this program is still airing from time to time on PBS stations across the country.)

Lois was surprised by the timing of my call, but I wasn't. God has a wonderful way of placing me in the paths of people when they need me most, or placing people in my path when I need them. As Lois and I were discussing all this, she told me about a sign she keeps on her desk that explains it all nicely. It reads:

Your passage through time and space is not at random; you cannot but be in the right place at the right time. - anon.

Writers derive great pleasure in writing, but their greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that their writing has meaning to others. A friend's comments brought tears to my eyes. “You are here for a purpose,” said Joanne. “I believe the purpose is far greater than just providing information for entrepreneurs. You have a marvelous gift for understanding people and, as Robert Schuller says, you turn ‘scars into stars.’ You bring people courage and support and we do appreciate it.”

The greatest human need is to feel loved and appreciated. As people helped me during my time of trial, I hope you'll help others. As you go about your business this year, keep an eye out for others who need your understanding, encouragement, or message of love. It’s the greatest gift you can give.

Cancer Facts

Although heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women between the ages of 15 and 54. When I first researched this topic several years ago, I was told that two-and-a-half million women had breast cancer then and one million didn't know it yet. 1997 statistics indicated that approximately 180,200 new cases of invasive breast cancer would be diagnosed, with 43,900 women dying from the disease.

Some women may suspect they have breast cancer but are so frightened of the word "cancer" that they refuse to confront it. Each day this disease kills many women who might have been saved by regular breast exams or mammograms, so I offer this report of my positive experience with this disease in hopes that it will prompt more women to action. An annual mammogram is inexpensive, an appointment will steal less than an hour of your time, and it could save your life.

2007 Update: Another writer friend of mine who has had a really vicious battle with breast cancer has just published Dancing With Fear: Tips and Wisdom From Breast Cancer Survivors. I have known Leila for many years, and have been delighted to feature her clever book marketing and PR strategies in several of my books and newsletters. She has self-published several "crafty books" (costumes, cooking, etc.) over the years, but this latest work, already being hailed as "a major contribution to the literature on cancer," is Leila's most important and surely most satisfying book to date. 

Although Leila is now celebrating her five years of being cancer-free, she has other health issues to deal with now. In the process of writing and self-publishing this book, she has been through one life-threatening health crisis after another, nearly dying more than once. She is currently wheelchair-bound with a danger of becoming permanently paralyzed or even blind, yet she continues to be enthusiastic about her work, and my admiration for her talent and optimistic spirit is endless. "While I was hospitalized a major part of last year, the thought of this book kept me going against odds," she wrote recently. "And there is also still hope that I might make a spontaneous recovery and start walking again."

To communicate with Leila and help her spread the word about her book, visit her website. (See my review on this book on Amazon.)

The Government's New Breast Cancer Guidelines
2012 Update from Barbara

Like millions of others, I was shocked by the November, 2009 announcement from a "government Task Force" advising that women should ignore the warning they issued earlier about the importance of regular mammography screening and self-examinations after the age of forty, and should now hold off on getting annual mammograms until they are fifty (see Fox News article about this here). And, oh yeah, don't bother with self-examinations because these "could lead to false positives which might prompt unnecessary treatment."

Hmmm, if you had to weigh the stress of a false positive and a follow-up medical test against NOT finding a lump that, left untreated, would lead to cancer that could KILL you, which would you choose? Of course, if you die from breast cancer that has not been discovered early enough, you certainly won't have any more stress.

As a breast cancer survivor for many years, I figure I'm here today because my annual mammogram revealed the early stages of breast cancer that was easily treated by surgery and radiation.

The good news is that the Department of Human Health and Services (HHS) and the American Cancer Society decided to stick with their recommendations that all women over 40 should get annual mammograms and continue to do self-examinations. If you Google "HHS new guidelines breast cancer" (without the quotes), you'll turn up more than a million pages of discussions Here's just one of them: Breast screening policy will "remain unchanged," says HHS. (If this link goes bad, you can easily find many other articles confirming this info).

So what's really going on here? The new guidelines came from a task force appointed by President Obama, and it was made up of 16 doctors and scientists who were "on board" with "Obamacare." I believe their goal was simply to help the government figure out how to deliver health care at the lowest costs possible under the new health reform bill, and only God knows what's actually in that bill because it's pretty clear that few if any members of Congress read the bill before it was passed. As Nancy Pelosi said—and will surely live to regret—"We have to pass the bill to see what's in it."

This new bill will reportedly dump about 40 million more Americans into the health care system, and there has been considerable testimony from the medical community that there simply won't be enough doctors to take care of all of these people. So I believe the government was "planning ahead" with its new recommendations for breast cancer screenings by trying to reeducate American women to these new "health guidelines," which would eliminate millions of mammogram screenings and follow-up tests. I believe that, under "Obamacare," this is just the first step of many that will gradually force (or prevent) all of us to stop seeking medical advice for things we routinely used to do, like getting annual blood tests to check our cholesterol and sugar readings to make sure we aren't heading for heart problems or diabetes. And men will probably be discouraged from getting PSA tests to learn if they have prostate cancer because, after all, this is a slow-growing cancer and something else may kill them before it gets too bad.

AARGH! All I can think of now is that famous quip, "Hi, we're from the government, and we're here to help you."

God help us all.

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See Barbara's 2013 Update to this article HERE.

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by Barbara Brabec
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