It's an honor to be here today.
I was a practicing veterinarian in South Florida when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33. At a time when I should have been enjoying my veterinary career, my husband, and my young toddler, I was diagnosed out of the blue. I was told it was caught very early, and I felt very fortunate. My only treatment was surgery. My doctors said that I was “cured.”
At 34, my cancer returned. Like so many others, I was terrified. After all, my cancer wasn’t supposed to come back. This second time around, it was even harder to believe in my future. About this time, I also learned that I carried a BRCA 2 mutation that had put me at very high risk for my initial breast cancer, my recurrence and even for a new diagnosis in my remaining healthy breast. And that wasn’t all. The mutation also meant I had a very high risk for developing ovarian cancer: up to 50% according to my doctors. Soon I had a treatment plan: 5 months of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation, followed by a mastectomy on my other side, and a total hysterectomy to lower my tremendous risk for ovarian cancer. I remember considering this overwhelming plan, and trying to look forward to my future…it was like looking up a tremendous mountain. I had over a year of treatment and surgery ahead of me. It seemed endless. How would I get through it?
Would I ever be able to resume my life-in-progress and go back to my career?
Would I be able to find joy in life again?
Would I live to see my son grow up?
When I looked at the immediate road, it seemed insurmountable. But I had to continue, for myself, for my son, and for my husband. I developed my own plan for survival, deciding the only way through it was one step at a time.
Each chemotherapy marked a milestone closer to my goal. Every radiation session brought me closer to the top of the mountain. As a reminder to my stepwise progress and to keep myself in shape, I kept my treadmill next to my bed and walked on it every day. Step by step, I kept myself in shape even as the treatment challenged my body. While immersed in treatment I tried to remember to appreciate and enjoy the little daily gifts and joys that living brought. My son learned to read. He celebrated his third birthday while I was in treatment. My 35th birthday came just as I was finishing radiation.
When treatment ended, I panicked. Sure, I had climbed the mountain, but I was afraid that my cancer would come back again the way it had before. Anxiety was my daily companion, following me everywhere. I tried to find my “new normal,” but post-treatment, post-menopausal and fatigued at 35, it was very difficult. The road ahead seemed interminable. But every day without cancer was a small victory, and every day I reminded myself of that. I approached my post-treatment life as I approached treatment: step-by-step. Days turned into months. Tentatively I celebrated birthdays, wedding anniversaries, cancerversaries. I looked to other survivors to help guide me. I reached forward to those whose journey had brought them steps ahead of me, and I saw that the road was not so lonely and that the path was well-worn by the footsteps of others.
My 36th birthday, my son’s fourth birthday, I was one year out of treatment. Six months later, in 1999, I started Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, also known as FORCE. What started as a grassroots effort to find my own support has evolved into a national nonprofit organization and community for people affected by BRCA mutations or hereditary cancer.
Step by step, as I survived, FORCE and the hereditary cancer community grew and I was able to lead the way for others. I then made another commitment, giving up my veterinary practice to direct and grow FORCE full-time.
Over time, the steps became surer, less weighted with fear and trepidation. I found the courage to regain my life. I was able to live more fully between the intermittent and decreasing obstacles of fear. Gradually my life settled into a routine. My son started school. I turned 40, FORCE reached its five-year mark, I celebrated my 10-year wedding anniversary, and my 10-year cancerversary.
Over the years, through FORCE I have been privileged to help thousands of individuals and families deal with the challenge and devastation of hereditary cancer. I have met so many people just starting their journey. Like deer in headlights, they too are overwhelmed, wondering how they can get through the preventive options or treatment that is in their future. Because I’ve been there, I understand what they feel. I tell them what I told myself: take it step-by-step.
Two weeks ago I celebrated my 48th birthday. I am now a 15-year survivor. My son is 16 and in high school, and I finally believe that I will be here for his graduation. FORCE is now 12 years old. I look back and that initial mountain is behind me, a distance away, and I can see the steps that brought me here. Each one required a willingness to move forward, a belief in a hopeful future, and during difficult times, just the encouragement that comes from accomplishing the step before. At 48, I am more healthy and fit than I have ever been before in my life.
I appreciate every day. As I look back, I see those behind me encouraged by my steps, taking their own tentative steps on this journey. I look ahead and see others who have faced and survived cancer and all those who have committed to making this journey easier for others.
There is no better reminder for me of my journey than being here today at the Relay for Life. Like the trek that I have made to get to where I am today, this is a journey of many steps. But we don’t have to walk alone. Together, each of us can step towards our future. May every one of us here today let every mile on this track remind us how far we can travel by moving one foot in front of the other. Not only can we help ourselves, but we can help others in their journey as well. I am here to encourage you to join me, moving step-by-step as we work toward the goal of defeating cancer. It's not a sprint but a long-term steady commitment to moving in the right direction. Please join me as I celebrate this relay known as life. Please join me as I walk in this relay for life…step-by-step.