Below are excerpts from our Joining FORCEs conference welcome address and a keynote talk that I recently gave in Chicago.
Fifteen years ago, there was no FORCE. Back then, hereditary cancer was scarier and lonelier than it is today.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, it was caught early. I was very lucky to have been diagnosed, since I had no family history of breast cancer, and breast cancer was not on my radar. I was very conscientious about my health, and I found a lump on my very first breast self-exam at age 29. The lump was benign, but it was the reason I was having mammograms by age 33, even though I was not considered to be at high risk. My son was almost two, and Dan and I were getting ready to get pregnant again. I went down the list of things you do before getting pregnant: take folic acid, see the dentist, get a mammogram. That mammogram found microcalcification, which led to a biopsy, and then another biopsy that showed very early breast cancer called “ductal carcinoma in situ” or DCIS. I was fortunate, as I hadn’t needed any further treatment beyond a mastectomy (unilateral), which was recommended because the amount of precancer that was throughout my breast.
I remember attending a Komen Race for the Cure walk three weeks after my mastectomy and looking out into a sea of pink caps and bald heads, and thinking “that isn’t me, my cancer was caught early.” I isolated and insulated myself and kept those other women at arms length, unable and unwilling and too afraid to define myself as someone with cancer. It made me too vulnerable and I didn’t want to be vulnerable.
Nine months later at age 34, my cancer returned in my lymph nodes. I learned that my original health care team had let me down. What they thought was early-stage breast cancer was actually invasive breast cancer that had already spread to my lymph nodes by the time of my mastectomy. Then they let me down a second time by never mentioning hereditary cancer or genetic counseling and testing. Through a chance reading of a magazine article on Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome and BRCA mutations, I learned that I carried some of the indications for genetic counseling and BRCA testing. Back then, I didn’t know how to advocate for myself to receive the best care. That lack of knowledge could have cost me my life. When my cancer recurred I knew that I only had one more chance to get it right, and I sought out the best health care experts I could find.
Like the women I saw at that first walk, I lost my hair with chemotherapy. Suddenly, I was very vulnerable and afraid as I found myself on the other side of the looking glass, the side I had tried to protect myself from through denial and (regretfully) indifference. While in chemotherapy I traveled to Los Angeles and stayed with a family friend. She was from a generation that didn’t like to talk about cancer. While we were out for a walk, she ran into an acquaintance, who she introduced to me. Right in front of me, nodding at my bald head, she whispered to her friend, “it’s cancer” as if I couldn’t hear her, or as if not saying the words aloud would protect her from it.
It jolted me and hit me, how different I was from the healthy world. I was a young woman with cancer. I knew that there were others like me, but I had never met them. The whispered words made me recoil, I felt diminished, stigmatized, devalued. But I also rebelled against these feelings.
With my genetic testing, that stigma grew. I learned that I had a BRCA2 mutation. Even the word “mutation” seemed alien, invasive, intrusive. How could something so dangerous and damaging be an integral part of me, of my DNA? I had to find a way to redefine and reconcile those aspects of myself in order to move forward in my journey.
I started writing a poem that I dedicated to all the people who were facing that type of stigma. I entitled my poem “Beyond Survival” because for me, surviving wasn’t enough. The poem was about transcending adversity and stigma, and becoming whole. I won’t share the entire poem but here are a few lines:
Our hearts flutter but beat strong,
with the will within us to go on.
To not just survive, but to achieve,
to aspire to inspire; to soar, to believe
that we can make a difference.
Shout it emphatically, the sound
of our existence echoes and resounds
ascends and transcends the farthest bluff,
resonates in crevices where ignorance hides
and divides us.
Do not feel devalued, do not cower.
As long as we draw breath, we’re empowered.
Despite these brave words, after finishing treatment, I suffered from depression. I was afraid that my cancer would recur quickly as it had the first time. These were some of the darkest days of my life, even worse than when I was first diagnosed, and when I had my recurrence. My family suffered with me as I didn’t have the energy or engagement in life that my husband and young toddler deserved. I wanted to be well, but I didn’t know how to get there, so I withdrew. I could have easily stayed in that world of sadness and fear, but around that time I purchased my first computer. I reached out via the Internet to others in online cancer forums, and connected with people like myself who slowly drew me out of my sadness and hopelessness and gave me courage to continue on. They inspired me, but equally important, they needed me and leaned on me for inspiration and support. It was from these women that I learned how powerful, healing, and transformative receiving but also giving peer support could be. Although I had not yet started FORCE there was this kernel of thought that my emotional healing from cancer required reaching out to others and knitting a strong community of people who could unite in solidarity and oppose the forces that would diminish us. I wrote this poem for my online support heroes.
cancer, like a vacuum,
was sucking out my joy and hope
enfolding and enclosing me in an envelope
of despair and fear.
In the distance I saw a steady glow,
heard a chorus growing closer
one light separating into many
descending on me,
a flock of angels
carrying torches, lighting the shadows,
voices singing, arms embracing, wings uplifting me.
I became one with this throng,
a thousand women strong.
In the distance a figure huddles
and shudders in a darkened corner,
we press onward swiftly towards her;
a thousand and one angels
comfort and support our newest member.
From that lonely kernel of thought grew the organization known as FORCE. Little did I know what FORCE would grow to become and mean in my life and the lives of so many. What I did know was that something needed to be done for me and for others to feel less alone! Whisperings in darkened corners are feared. Their shadows are made larger by the lack of light. But from the time of my recurrence on, when I threw off indifference and denial, I understood that if we could shine a spotlight bright on an issue we could remove some of the fear and ignorance, and that together we are so much stronger, braver, and resilient than we are alone. Fourteen years ago I founded FORCE on the principle that no one should face hereditary cancer alone! I was tenacious and passionate in my outreach and advocacy. I did everything I could to make sure that people received the information they needed to make informed medical decisions—information that I was denied when I started my breast cancer journey.
Part of the wonder of FORCE has been the steady growth of our community since then. No matter people’s situation, they are not alone! Our members draw the same strength that I have from belonging to the FORCE community. I believe that each of us carries some type of torch within us, a flame that sparks our passion and helps ignite the passion of others; a flame that we can use to guide other people who are facing darkness and despair. By joining together we have succeeded in illuminating hereditary cancer to create hope for a brighter future for ourselves and for our families.