in 1957 my young maternal grandmother, Maurine, (age 45) was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lived in our home with my parents and me and my siblings for 5 years as she underwent the treatment that was available at the time. Treatment included radical mastectomy, hysterectomy and removal of ovaries, and intensive radiation therapy. In 1960, my 78 year old paternal grandmother, Ada, was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She opted for no treatment.
Dr. Lerner, a breast cancer historian, and author of the book The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, fear, and the pursuit of a cure in 20th century America wrote that in the 1950’s there was an enormous amount of very aggressive surgery done for not only breast cancer, but other cancers. The sense was that cancer grew in a very orderly manner, so if you could remove enough tissue in the area that contained the cancer, you could cure women. There was an operation called pelvic exenteration, in which a woman’s pelvic organs were all removed. And in the area of the breast, the doctors began to actually remove part of the rib cage to try to get to these elusive cancer cells. So there was a dramatic degree of disfigurement for these patients.
I, like many young women in the 1960’s and 1970’s lived in fear of getting breast cancer. As a very young woman in the early 1970’s I discovered a lump in my breast, and when I went into surgery for a breast biopsy, the physician told me that I would be going under general anesthesia, and if the tumor was malignant, I would wake up with my breast removed without having a chance to consult with another physician, or prepare myself. When I awoke from the anesthesia, I had a bandage over an incision. I still had my breast!
Over the years I have seen the improvements in screening, diagnosis and treatment. The awareness brought forth by the American Cancer Society, and Susan G. Koman has saved lives! I got my mammograms regularly and had 12 more benign biopsies in 20 years – which were done in outpatient surgery or in physician offices.
I am grateful for Maurine and Ada, who are my grandmothers and my heroes. Their journey and the memory of their spirit and bravery made me and my mother and sisters aware. I am grateful to all of those who have been part of educating us about early detection and prevention. I am grateful to the scientists and researchers, and the fund raising efforts that have been initiated by passionate advocates for women’s health. I am grateful for the cancer survivors who inspire us with their stories, and the example of those who have left a legacy of their courage.
Learn more about breast cancer awareness at the National Breast Cancer Association.
“The goal is to live a full, productive life, even with all that ambiguity. No matter what happens; whether the cancer flares up again, or you die – the important thing is that the days you have had – that you will live.” Gilder Radner
About the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living , located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years experience in not-for-profit and for profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living.