If I Am Not for Myself: “Hands On” Against Breast Cancer

The first thing I did when I got the call in March a year ago that my biopsy was positive for breast cancer was to make two lists. On one list were all the people I knew who had breast cancer and died. On the other list were those I knew who had it and survived.

There were way too many people on both lists, but since this was a time for being honest with myself, I had to acknowledge that there were more on the “died” list—including some very close friends. 

My mother, however, was one of those who survived. Ever since she got breast cancer at 72, I have called it “old lady breast cancer” because her type of cancer is more common in older women. It’s estrogen receptive, meaning it was feeding off the estrogen left in her post-menopausal body, and not related to the BRCA gene dreaded by Ashkenazi women. It was 2001, and my mom had a few small lumps in each breast. She opted for a double mastectomy, as hard as that was, and lived another 11 years. In the end, it wasn’t the breast cancer that killed her.

The good news was that I had the same “old lady breast cancer.” Just one small, slow-growing lump, easily removed along with two lymph nodes in lumpectomy surgery. A few weeks later the post-surgery biopsies showed clean margins around the lump, meaning the area around it was cancer-free as were the lymph nodes. With a short course of targeted radiation “just to be sure” and estrogen-blocking daily medication, my prognosis is excellent, and gave me even more reason to really celebrate my 70th birthday shortly after.

So why am I telling you all this? Because I want to make a difference in how you act with a few very important take-aways from my personal story.

Take-away #1: Do a breast self-exam. 

I found my lump by doing self-exam in one of my usual places, the shower. My mother found hers three months after she got a clean report from her annual mammogram. According to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump. Forty percent! That is a significant number. So, do it regularly. Make it a habit. And if you need guidance as to how to do self-exam, find it and a lot more information at the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

So many times in my life I had heard, but not always acted upon, the need to take control of my own health. Once cancer entered into my body and my life, I realized that’s unacceptable.

What about the other 60 percent? Here’s take-away #2: Get regular mammograms.

Be honest with yourself. Have you put off getting a mammogram for the past nearly three years because of the pandemic? Have you still not made the appointment? 

I get it. I was long overdue for a mammogram when I found the lump. My appointment for March 2020 had, along with most of the rest of our lives at that time, been canceled. We have all been so (understandably) consumed with a very serious, sometimes deadly, infectious disease, worried about the health of people around us in addition to our own wellbeing. The whole medical system was overwhelmed just trying to save lives. Even in “normal” times, our lives are busy, and we’re not eager to take the time to get each of our breasts slammed in the refrigerator door or other painful descriptions of what mammograms used to be like. 

“Used to be like.” As I discovered, not all mammograms today don’t need to make a pancake of your breast anymore in order to get accurate pictures. And besides, even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s a worthwhile trade for your health. And if you need even more motivation, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recently released new guidelines for breast cancer screening and diagnosis that lower the age from 50 to 40 for all women to have annual mammograms. 

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: © Nevit Dilmen

So many times in my life I had heard, but not always acted upon, the need to take control of my own health. Once cancer entered into my body and my life, I realized that’s unacceptable. When the radiology business I have been going to for nearly 20 years told me the first appointment was three months away in May, no exceptions, I started calling around until I found both an appointment three weeks off and a caring person who checked for cancellations several times a week, trying to get me in sooner. By the time that distant appointment would have come around, I was through surgery and radiation with a scar healing nicely. That surgery and part of my ongoing care is by a doctor I consciously chose for her credentials and compassionate, matter-of-fact attitude.

So, do the research. Speak up with doctors and other medical staff. Ask questions, express feelings and concerns. I know how often I and many of us as women feel brushed off or intimidated by doctors, or are too willing to defer to their opinions. Fight to be acknowledged and heard, or ask for help doing so. And if you’re concerned about the BRCA gene, get genetically tested and make decisions based on knowledge of your body. 

Today, I don’t often think of myself as a person who had cancer, but that is the fact, and I appreciate that the breast cancer survivor list is one name longer.

But I still really wish I didn’t need to have these lists. 

Writer, chef and cooking instructor Susan Barocas is passionate about healthy, no-waste cooking and Jewish food, especially Sephardic history, culture and cuisines. She is co-founder/co-director of the new project, Savor: A Sephardic Music & Food Experience.