Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Talkin' Breast Cancer with an Old Lady

Because of my age, I have been given many opportunities to speak about my experience as a 26 year old cancer patient and the most recent experience allowed me to spread my own awareness to young girls. I was asked to speak to a group of Girl Guides between the ages of 15 and 18 and it was quite honestly an amazing experience.

October is a busy month for breast cancer organizations and many times survivors because it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It means different things to different people. The blogging world is lit up with 'pink washing' and you hear a lot about the pink ribbon, consumerism, and how corporations take advantage of this month. I have been told by a number of people that 'the public is aware, now we need a cure' or 'why do we focus on awareness when prevention is what we need?' Although I agree that we need a cure, that we should focus on prevention, and that we should use the pink ribbon for good, I don't think we are all aware. Well, and maybe my awareness means something different than other's awareness.

Before I had breast cancer, I had seen the pink ribbon, knew that it represented breast cancer and knew that if someone was wearing it that they were touched by breast cancer in some way. Does that make me aware? I don't think so. I had zero awareness of what breast cancer is or more importantly that it could happen to me. I didn't know about the emotional effects, about the process, about the pain, about survivorship, the required support, where my donations went - I knew none of it.

I get a little frustrated during breast cancer awareness because I, among other young breast cancer patients/survivors are forgotten about again. The ads target grandmothers, women with grown children, women in menopause and they miss us youngins. It is true that 80% of all breast cancer diagnoses are in the 50+ age group so I understand why so much of this month is devoted to our aunts, mothers and grandmothers but if anything, that group is more aware of breast cancer than anyone. Aren't women in their 20s, 30s and 40s a missed demographic? Shouldn't we (daughters, nieces, sisters, and granddaughter) be the ones that are targeted by awareness?

When I was asked to speak to the Girl Guides, I was pretty excited about it. During the weeks leading up to the engagement, I kept thinking, 'these girls must be really looking forward to this night (<---- pure sarcasm). How excited would I be at 15 years old to hear an old lady talk about breast cancer? Cancer is the most depressing topic ever and on top of it, we have to discuss our breast?' I tried to keep these thoughts in mind while I was preparing what I was going to say to them. I wanted them to feel comfortable with me and ask any question that they could think of. In my own experience, primarily with my Aunt Sandra who died of pancreatic cancer when I was 15, I didn't ask any of my own questions because I didn't want to upset anyone. I didn't know what cancer was, I didn't understand how having cancer made someone so sick and could kill them, I didn't know how she got it, I knew very little but didn't want to bring it up so instead I said nothing. Because I was someone who had no personal connection to these girls, I wanted them to know that they could ask any question without me getting emotional, being sad, or saying that I would explain it to them when they were older and I wanted them to be aware that breast cancer doesn't only happen to 'old ladies' (although I'm sure that at 28, I am still 'old' in their minds).

I told them stories about cancer, chemo, things people say, supportive things that people had done for me, how cancer doesn't end when treatment does - primarily my story. I handed out pamphlets that explained how to examine your breasts and told them at their age, it was important to know what was normal so if anything abnormal showed up, they would be able to identify it, tell someone, and catch it early. I didn't want to scare them and I think I was able to balance awareness and education.

I had them laughing, tried to spare them the stories of my PICC lines, the constant nausea that comes with chemo, and the grossness of my post-surgery drain. Instead I tried to explain how I dealt with the loss of a breast, how people helped me when I was in need, and most importantly how I was so relieved in the end that I told someone when I found a lump even though I was so scared to find out what it was.

Every so often I would stop talking and ask if anyone had any questions and there was the odd one here and there but as time progressed, more hands went up and more girls were asking more questions. "How long did it take your hair to grow back", "You mentioned your periods went away, why?", "Can you have kids now", "Why was it hard to look down at your chest after surgery?" All I kept thinking was, "We've started a dialogue!" Together, we are talking about breast cancer and these girls feel safe. I don't know if I said the words 'period' and 'breast' in front of my peers when I was 15 but these girls are not only saying the words, but they are also asking questions. I loved it.

They thanked me at the end with a box of Girl Guide cookies (which are all gone - oops) and all I kept thinking was 'What I did was easy, what you girls did was the hard part.' I speak and write about cancer all the time, it's those girls that deserve a thank you. The fact that they welcomed me into their group, invited me to speak about breast cancer and then were interested enough to ask questions - it was amazing and it was awareness.

There are conflicting ideas about the right age to start breast cancer screening and whether the pink ribbon is a good representation of breast cancer anymore. No one can agree if we should focus more on prevention or on the cure. Some want more funds devoted to research while others want more support for survivorship programs. To be honest, I don't know what the right answer is but what's clear to me and what I've learned is that it's never too early to talk to young women (in high school, in college, pre-med, etc.) about breast cancer.

Thank you to the Girl Guides for letting me share my story and for having a conversation with an old lady.


  1. That sounds awesome, Katie! How exciting to have such a dynamic and open discussion like that with young girls. You must have really engaged them and made them feel at ease. Sending you a virtual high five!

    1. Thanks Michelle. I really relied on two things: my education in teaching, and I pretended like Rachel was in the room and I tried to entertain/inform/educate her. It seemed to work.

  2. Oh wow I really applaud you for doing that! I myself already have a fear of speaking in public and well talking about such an emotional subject would be even harder. It's really wonderful that you did this and it is exactly what awareness should be all about!

    1. Thank Ciel - very sweet of you. I absolutely love speaking to groups like this. I'd love to make it a full time job...