Breast Cancer Survivors Share Stories of Triumph
No one knows exactly what causes breast cancer. Age, gender, lifetime exposure to estrogen, family history and other factors play a role, but the truth is, all women are at risk.
Experts say maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and limiting alcohol intake reduces your risk - and if you are diagnosed, there's a good chance you will beat it. But when breast cancer strikes someone you love, none of that matters. The raw emotions you experience and conversations you have with your loved one consume everyday cares.
Two breast cancer survivors share memories of their diagnoses, treatment and triumph over this disease that affects one in eight women. More than anything else, they recall how their experiences brought them closer to the ones they love.
Vigilance, persistence led to diagnosis
Ellen Baker and her daughters, Sara and Katie, call the discussion about her breast cancer diagnosis "The Conversation on the Big Yellow Chair."
In January 2006, after years spent trying to avoid the disease, Baker learned that a lump in her breast was cancerous. She had already endured numerous previous biopsies. When the 58-year-old Raleigh resident's eldest daughter, Sara, was born in 1991, Baker found her first lump. It wasn't cancerous, but that launched a concerted effort to monitor her health with various tests every three months, just to be safe. Nobody was more vigilant than Baker.
Cancer was prevalent in her family history. "Both my parents died of cancer, my grandparents, just about everybody in my family, including the dog, died of cancer," Baker says. "Being vigilant was my life."
In 2005, after 40 biopsies in 14 years, Baker went to Duke University Health Center for a prophylactic mastectomy. She essentially had a breast reduction, Bakerexplains, removing the tissue that was causing concern. Then good news: She was told she had nothing to worry about.
But pain followed, and another lump, then a radiology screen, a sonogram, another biopsy.
"Then, of course, it was cancer. My mother-in-law was diagnosed the same day. My kids had to deal with that. It was devastating to the girls," she recalls.
Baker, Sara, then 15, and Katie, then 14, snuggled in the Big Yellow Chair where Baker shared her news.
"They cried. They were scared. To them, it meant death," Barker recalls. "Once they saw that I could handle it, that I was handling it, they were OK."
Baker says she tried to involve her daughters in her treatment and recovery. She tried to keep things light.
"I took them with me to get my wigs. I made dinner every night. I tried to keep everything as normal as possible for the girls. I went prom shopping for Sara's prom dress in a wheelchair. I didn't miss recitals or graduation," she says.
Support came in many forms for Baker. Her sister, Laura, was a rock. The entire family took advantage of the Cancer Navigator program at Duke, with professionals who help all family members find the resources they need. The Susan G. Komen Foundation local affiliate pointed Baker to help for herself and her family, including support services in the wake of a concurrent divorce. Through the website www.caringbridge.com, Baker shared her experiences with others facing the same challenge.
Baker still tries to keep things positive for her girls, now 22 and 21. Currently an executive coach in the Duke Fuqua School of Business MBA program, she is writing a book about her battle and the importance of being informed and positive.
Baker remains vigilant. "My goal is to live as long as I can because my daughters need me," she says.
Helping others provides a positive outlet
Three years ago, when she learned of her breast cancer diagnosis, Elizabeth Upchurch first shared the news with her eldest daughter, Meredith, 16.
"She got real teary-eyed and she didn't really understand what that meant. We had friends of the family who had cancer. In her mindset, anybody who has cancer dies," the Raleigh resident recalls. "She just kept looking at me with very sad eyes."
That night at the dinner table, twins Kathryn and Caroline, who were 12, sensed something wasn't right as they watched their sad sister and uncomfortable mother.
"So we all came together and talked about it. We sat on the bed and we held each other and we cried," Upchurch says.
Upchurch, however, felt confident about her chances of recovery. She believed everything would be OK, thanks to advances in research and the outstanding physicians she trusted to help her. With a great surgeon at Rex Healthcare and a wonderful oncologist at the Cancer Center of North Carolina, Upchurch felt she had the best care possible.
Her history of fibrocystic disease had prompted doctors to take extra care. She had previously undergone several biopsies, and each one had provided the green light she was seeking. Until the day a cyst turned out to be stage 2 breast cancer.
Upchurch explored her options. Because of her history, in April 2008, she had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
"Having three girls, my big thing was, I was worried about them. The twins were 12; they were in sixth grade. Meredith was in ninth grade. I had to tell them, 'Mom's kind of in a different place,'" she says.
Upchurch remembers how angry Meredith was, not the reaction she was expect-ing. But the anger was directed at the disease, not at mom. Her husband, Edward, reassured the girls that this was no one's fault. Nobody caused the cancer to happen.
Thanks to an amazing support system - good friends, parishioners, parents and in-laws - and Edward, Upchurch was able to stay positive.
Today, Upchurch, 51, volunteers for the Susan G. Komen Foundation local affiliate, educating women about the support available and sharing her personal experience. She, her girls and a large group of their friends also participate in the annual Race for the Cure.
One of the positive outcomes Upchurch notes is that her girls have been able to help friends whose families are facing a cancer diagnosis. She says it's therapeutic for them to feel they have helped someone else.
"All three (girls) have been able to be a strong shoulder of support for others. Each girl has a good friend whose mom has been diagnosed since my illness, and they have been able to share some of their experiences and help them to know some of what to expect," Upchurch says.
"Cancer affects the whole family, not just one individual. We all grieve and handle it in different manners. Hopefully we can all come through it on a positive note and be there for each other and those we have yet to meet," she says.
Several groups and organizations in the Triangle provide support, information and assistance to women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. For these resources, read Breast Cancer Support in the Triangle.
For more information on this topic, see Tips to Help Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk.