Photos and text used with permission
of Anne Abate
I have learned many things in the last few years. These are things that I hope nobody else ever has to learn. While I am a strong proponent of continuing education for everyone, you will see why I don't want anyone to follow my path.
In February of 2002, (February 14 to be exact) I was diagnosed with an aggressive disease known as inflammatory breast cancer. This is not your regular "plain vanilla" breast cancer, and it is not treated in the same way. Within a week, I had undergone two surgeries - the first two surgeries of my life - one to do an extensive biopsy and the other to insert a port through which I would receive chemotherapy for the next six months. In August, I went under the knife again, this time for a bilateral mastectomy.
My medical team finished everything off with a few weeks of radiation. I am happy to say that, after the surgery, I was declared cancer free. In just a few months after my active treatment ended, some of my strength started to return, and I was almost back to normal. In the last few years I have had too many scans and tests and biopsies to count. I have experienced a couple of scares and flare-ups of my disease, but my medical team has been able to fight those back and keep me free from active disease.
Following my treatment, and even while I was in treatment, I became more active in advocacy groups and support organizations. I discovered the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation and became active in their efforts to educate the world about this terrible form of cancer. I also became a volunteer in the Reach to Recovery Program of the American Cancer Society. Through this program breast cancer survivors reach out to newly diagnosed patients to offer them support, an ear, and a path forward.
Five years ago, I started volunteering at my local breast center. Every week I see literally hundreds of women sitting in the waiting room in little pink vests waiting for their mammograms. Each week dozens of these women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. We need to work together to stop this nonsense.
Several years ago, I learned about the Department of Defense (DoD) Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) and the role of the consumer reviewer. I jumped at the opportunity to use my academic abilities to read and think and write, combine those with my personal experiences with an awful disease and the side effects of treatment, and discover this tremendous way to really make a difference to the future of medical research. I was delighted when one of my staff partners at the American Cancer Society agreed to nominate me as a consumer reviewer.
Recently, my wonderful oncologist recommended adding a brand new drug, Ibrance ®, to the mix of things we are using to ward off any progression of my disease. I was thrilled to discover that some of the initial research on this drug had been supported by the DoD BCRP. What an amazing thing to know that, as a consumer reviewer, I am helping to advance research that could one day actually help me and thousands of other women stay alive. I now have even more reasons to be involved in this program.
My experiences have taught me some very important lessons, the most important of which is that life is too short. It is important to do everything you can in the time that you have. It is also important to take care of yourself. I would encourage all women to learn a little bit about inflammatory breast cancer. Its symptoms are unique, and I encourage women to go to ibcresearch.org and learn about them.
My experiences have also helped me develop an astounding ability to say and do what needs to be said and done. I have always been pretty vocal. Now I realize how important that is and plan to speak up whenever necessary. This has served me well in my role as a consumer reviewer with the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program. I am there to speak the words of the breast cancer patient and survivor in order to help improve treatment, reduce side effects, and some day stop this madness that is breast cancer.
Don't learn things the hard way - the way I did. Continuing education is essential, but none of us need to know as much as I do about chemotherapy, surgical procedures, and radiation treatments. Fortunately, I did learn the most important lesson: Life is short. Make sure you use it, every minute of it, wisely.