February 16 is my sister's birthday and is now a second birthday for me. On that overcast and chilly day in 2005, I received the phone call that forever changed my life. Cancer - breast cancer. No! Not me! I didn't know anyone who had breast cancer, I was too young to have cancer ... how did I get cancer? The lump that I found, the lump that doctors said I had for several years, the lump that didn't show on the mammogram, the lump that surgeons assessed had less than a 10 percent chance of being cancer ... was breast cancer. What do I do? Am I going to die? These and many more questions ran through my mind. I knew one thing for sure, however - I was going to fight for my life! I turned to my faith, and the battle was on.
Surgery, radiation, hormonal therapy, more surgery, no job - the cancer battle is draining, and the treatments are rough and tough. Although my breast cancer is Stage 1, complications are coming out of the woodworks. ...they never told me this when I was diagnosed. Approximately 18 months after my breast cancer diagnosis, I hear the dreaded "C" word again. I am told that now there is a 90% chance that I have lung cancer. After more surgery, at least the news was better than I could hope for - I had bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP), likely a complication from the radiation therapy I received, but no cancer! For the first time I truly understood what pain and suffering was, so I made a vow with God that if I could make it through this, I would help others who were diagnosed with cancer.
I needed better ways to understand this, and how to deal with it, and I wondered how I could help wage the war on breast cancer. I started meeting other survivors and attended a support group or two, but I needed and wanted to do more. I started finding out about other avenues that were available to me. Advocacy, education, and awareness are areas that called me. I understood the issues, and since I was living through cancer, these were the areas where I felt I could make a difference. I decided to focus my efforts within the poor, underserved communities in Metro Atlanta, where minorities live and lack of education is rampant, and be the face and voice of a breast cancer survivor.
I became a volunteer Patient Navigator with the Avon Foundation Communication Education and Outreach Initiative. This gave me the opportunity to work in the communities where resources were lacking and where we could make a difference by providing low-cost or free mammograms, demonstrating how to do Breast Self-Exams, and educating and promoting breast cancer awareness.
By joining the Georgia Breast Cancer Coalition Fund (GBCCF) Board of Directors, I became involved in advocacy, and this led me to becoming a member of the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC). This was one of the best decisions I ever made, as I learned to become an effective advocate. I realized survivors could make an impact in many ways, such as by being nominated as a Peer Reviewer for the Department of Defense (DoD) Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP). I learned about the BCRP by attending the NBCC's annual Advocacy Summits, and in 2007 I became a Project Lead® graduate. A great friend (who is now deceased) who served as a peer reviewer nominated me. She always told me, "Fran, you are so passionate about this. Your voice needs to be heard with those who are working to end this disease." I thought, OK, to have the opportunity to meet with scientists, researchers, and medical professionals and review applications for breast cancer funding would be such an honor for me, and one I would treasure always.
Wow! I was accepted into the program as a Peer Reviewer for the BCRP. What a heady experience! All of these great minds actually want to hear what I have to say! Even better was that they all respected what I had to say, and what I brought to the table, because I had the experience no one really wants - I am a breast cancer survivor.
The BCRP is one the most integral breast cancer funding programs we have today. The researchers use innovative, challenging, exciting, unorthodox and "outside of the box" methods in their research. It is wonderful to think that one or more of these proposals could actually change the face of breast cancer by bringing hope to those who are afraid they may be diagnosed next, providing more informative breast cancer detection methods, and finally halting the deaths, despair,and destruction that breast cancer wreaks.
Seven years and 14 surgeries after my diagnosis, I am a warrior in the fight against breast cancer. It's so refreshing to know that my fellow advocates - especially the researchers who continuously labor and expend extraordinary efforts in the labs, are fighting the war with me. It is great getting to know the people behind the "white coats", and I am happy to say I have kept in touch with many of my fellow scientific reviewers. I feel so blessed and appreciate the opportunity to have served on panels since 2010! Knowing that I have helped to make a difference with some of the brightest minds in the country, is more rewarding that one could know. And yes, maybe this seems like a small dent in such an enormous problem, but the work of the BCRP, along with the NBCC and breast cancer advocates, is making a difference. I believe that day is coming where breast cancer will be eradicated and conquered!