You are never too busy to take care of yourself. You are never too busy to help another woman.
I never write articles about myself. I always write about scientific methods, interventions, and study findings. Today, I am writing about me and breast cancer.
Cancer is a weird sounding word. When you say it in a sentence with someone’s name, people always react by saying, “Oh no; that’s terrible.” Cancer is something that someone else has. It is something that you don’t want to get. It is something you don’t even want to be tested for because if you found out you had it, you wouldn’t know what to do. You couldn’t deal with it. Not now. You are busy. You have things to do, places to go and people to see. It’s inconvenient.
When I turned 40, I got my first breast exam. My friend was in charge of the breast imaging center so I got special treatment. I thought. It turns out breast imaging people treat everyone special. And they are very smart people with excellent vision. They see things no one else can see. I had the exam. It was no big deal. Really.
I had my mammogram every year around the same time of the year — Mother’s Day. The mammogram per se isn’t scary. Really. The scary part is that silly gown, wondering if the gown is coming loose around you (tip: double gown — put on one that opens up in the front and one that opens in the back). The other scary part is waiting for the doctors to read your image.
Eight years ago, when I went to the imaging center, I was asked to go into an examination room and told that there was a suspicious area of my breast that needed to be checked out with a needle biopsy. OK. No big deal. Really. I was leaving to go out of town when the phone rang. It was my friend from the imaging center telling me she had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that I had cancer; the good news was that it appeared to be caught early.
I was a poster child for the mammogram because I didn’t have a lump that was palpable. It was only discoverable on the X-ray. I would have a lumpectomy. No big deal. Really.
I phoned my husband and said the “c” word. I could hardly believe it. I went to the airport for the first time with cancer. I took a taxi for the first time with cancer. I stayed overnight at the hotel for the first time with cancer. I went to a meeting, with cancer. I would have surgery and anesthesia for the very first time. That was the only big deal. I had never had surgery or anesthesia. Even for child birth. But I was the same person with cancer that I was when I didn’t know I had cancer.
I was afraid of being sick, dying, losing control, losing a breast, feeling pain, missing work. But, none of those happened to me. Really. The radiation treatments went well; I didn’t miss a day of work, or get sick, or lose control, or lose a breast. I was lucky. I still am.
Sister, you could be lucky, too. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Think of eight women at work, or in your neighborhood, or at church or at the grocery store. At least 1 of them will be diagnosed. The hope is that they will be diagnosed early, as I was.
But when I think back to all of those mammograms I have had, in a busy medical school complex in the middle of the city, I really don’t remember seeing many women of color.
Is it because they didn’t feel comfortable going? Or didn’t know where to go? Or couldn’t get there? Or didn’t know they should go? Or didn’t feel the place was sensitive to their needs? Probably all of the above.
The day after Mother’s Day began National Women’s Health Week. My wish is that all of the women you know will do something that week to help other women stay healthy. Start with you! Make your health a top priority. If you have cancer, you have cancer. Isn’t it better to know early than find out later? Of course, it is. If you are scared to go, call a friend, call the breast center, call your pastor, call me! Anyone of us will be happy to help you.
Who else can help you? Community health educators can help. They have been trained by staff of the “Believe!” program — a new program run by women, for women, through the WellFlorida Council.
“Believe!” spreads the word about breast cancer detection, especially to African-American women who have been hit the hardest with breast cancer.
What can you do? Listen to the community health educators at your church, in the grocery store, at the bus stop. Take advantage of their advice. Pass on the information they give to other women. Distribute information through church bulletins, websites and magazines. Discuss prevention and mammograms with your sisters and their husbands and their family.
Get a breast exam at an imaging center. Now.
Where can you go? You can go to HealthStreet, a community-based site to learn how to do breast self-exams, to get connected to free or low-cost breast cancer screenings. HealthStreet is located at the East Campus of the University of Florida at 2124 NE Waldo Road, Building 1628, Suite 1200. Call 352-294-4884 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. It is supported by the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and College of Medicine and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
Why? You are never too busy to take care of yourself. You are never too busy to help another woman. You are important. You are loved. We believe in you. You believe in yourself. You are a big deal. Believe! Really.
Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D, M.P.H., is a professor and founding chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health Professions and College of Medicine at the University of Florida and an advisory board member of “Believe! Preventing Breast Cancer through Churches,” an initiative by the WellFlorida Council.