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Seeing Breast Cancer Through
the Eyes of Someone You Know

by Doug Carpenter

I’m about to break a lot of rules here. But when I explain why, I think you’ll understand.

As any trained journalist will tell you, when you put together a feature article – like this interview with WKBW Channel 7’s Susan Banks about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you’re generally expected to write it in the third person. Objectively. Focusing on your subject… who is, after all, what the story is about.

But I can’t do that here. Because the story I’ve been asked to share with you isn’t really about Susan. In fact, when we talked recently about her personal experiences facing, fighting and beating breast cancer, she was the one who pointed that out to me, clearly placing the emphasis where she feels it rightly belongs. Not on recounting the survival of any one individual but on educating those who may one day face the disease.

“I’m not an expert on breast cancer,” she’ll tell you right up front. “You think you know so much about it since it’s been around so long. But believe me. You don’t know anything until it happens to you.” It’s that very situation… that too-common lack of understanding of the disease… that motivates Susan to speak so candidly about so personal a topic.

I should mention that I’m breaking yet another rule right there by calling her Susan, when the more professionally-accepted practice would be to avoid such familiarity and refer to her by her last name. But I can’t do that either. Frankly, I doubt many of us could. After nearly three decades as one of Western New York’s most recognized and trusted newscasters, we know her too well. She’s too much like family.

A good indication that she feels the same about us is the way she decided, literally the day she learned she had breast cancer, that she should and would talk about it openly. “I found out about it on a Monday,” she recalls, “and of course I had to tell my bosses what was going on when I went in to work that day.” Her News Director and General Manager were both personally supportive and sensitive to her situation, leaving how it would be handled completely up to her.

“Almost instantly I decided that I was going to go public with it. Amazingly, because of that, I’ve had so many women come to me and say ‘Because you talked about it, I chose to get a mammogram, and they found a lump, and I had a lumpectomy, and now I’m O.K.’”

The story closely mirrors Susan’s, which began with her diagnosis and the removal of a malignant lump in November of 2001 and ended successfully after a series of radiation treatments that lasted from December through February 2002. But what she finds even more moving than that experience, she says, is the realization of how sharing it has so profoundly touched other women’s lives.

“I think that probably affected me more strongly than my own cancer,” she admits. “I think to myself, if I hadn’t said anything, what would they have done? Does it make me feel good? It makes me feel grateful, for their sake.” It also makes her worry and wonder. “It scares me a little, too. The key, of course, is to catch it early. But think how many women there are out there who still don’t know that. Who don’t get mammograms. Who are actually afraid to get one.”

Her very real concerns are validated by some very troubling statistics. Although it’s been determined that, when breast cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate exceeds 95%, some 13 million U.S. women age 40 or older have never had a mammogram. It was sobering numbers like these that led to the 1993 designation of the third Friday of every October as National Mammography Day, which this year falls on October 15th.

That’s as good a day as any to take to heart some very direct advice from a very authoritative source. “You want to reduce your chances of dying of breast cancer?” Susan asks. “Do everything you can to protect yourself. Do your breast self-examinations, not just once a month as has become the standard. Do it every time you get in the shower when you’re all soaped up and your skin is slick. It only takes a couple of minutes.”

Demonstrating the now-widely acknowledged importance of regular mammograms is the expanding range of local and national resources committed to educating the public about the disease and making breast cancer screenings as available and affordable as possible. Among them is a New York State Department of Health-sponsored local initiative called Partners for Prevention of Erie County, which can provide low-cost or free mammograms for women who are 40 or over, uninsured or underinsured.

In addition to this program, resources available to help you better understand, deal with and prevent breast cancer include:

Partners for Prevention of Erie County
197 Summer Street
Buffalo, NY 14222

American Cancer Society
101 John James Audubon Parkway
Amherst, NY 14228
689-6981 or 1-800-ACS-2345

WNY Breast Resource Center
Roswell Park Cancer Institute
Elm and Carlton Streets
Buffalo, NY 14263

National Cancer Institute

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

You could say that, just like this article, Susan Banks lives her post-breast cancer life in the first person. She’s the first person to acknowledge that the kind of close call she experienced made her stop, take stock of her priorities and make some important changes. And as fate would have it, she wasn’t the only one who heard the wake-up call. Her husband, Mike, did too, for health-related reasons of his own.

Shortly after her cancer, he experienced a heart episode involving serious arterial blockage that required angioplasty. Fortunately, like hers, his treatment was successful. But it understandably got both of their attentions. “He said to me, ‘You know… I came really close, and you came really close. Let’s do something we always wanted to do.’”

That “something” turned out to be selling their house and building their “dream home,” which they completed and moved into this past April. Of course, she admits – laughing – that she wishes they’d done it when they were “a whole lot younger,” but adds that, like a lot of things in life, it’s “better late than never.” That also goes, she says, for recognizing the value of some things we all know are important but don’t always give the attention we should. Like family.

Susan recognized that her illness was at many times even more difficult for her husband than it was for her. She observed that while you yourself may be able to muster the strength you need to cope with your disease, however unpredictable it may be, the people around you have even less control than you do, and can be terrified.

That’s when it becomes more essential than ever to take care of those who are taking care of you. It’s why, in a very real sense, it’s not just you fighting and winning the battle. Everyone in your family becomes a cancer survivor.

It also helped, Susan says, to focus on the positive things that were taking place during each phase of her treatment. “When you get radiation, they actually tell you not to lose weight. To build yourself up. And I thought ‘Yeah! O.K.! Chocolate cake, here I come!’ What we actually started doing was celebrating milestones,” she remembers. “‘O.K. I’ve gotten through a week of radiation. Let’s do something fun. Let’s go out to the movies or dinner.’”

“And I’ll tell you something,” she says proudly. “ I laugh a whole lot more now, too. I just don’t let things bother me as much as I did before. I simply decided that I was going to enjoy my life, and, most importantly, the people in it.” And when it comes to showing the people in your life that you love them, she emphatically offers one more piece of advice.

“Tell your mother! Tell your sister! Tell your wife! Tell your daughter! Tell your grandmother! Tell your cousins! Tell your friends! Remind them to get their mammograms! And if you find a lump, call your doctor. Don’t be afraid. And don’t think ‘Oh, I’m going to feel silly if it’s nothing.’ Your doctor won’t think you’re silly.”

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she says, is about more than just raising women’s awareness of breast cancer. It’s about encouraging and helping them to become more aware of life, and to more fully appreciate the things that make their own lives worth living… and protecting.

© 2004 Doug Carpenter

After 50 columnist Doug Carpenter’s Mom recently marked her 10th year as a breast cancer survivor

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