Editor’s Note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is the first in a series of reader columns relating to breast cancer, offered as a reminder to readers to have regular check-ups.
My big sister Lynn graduated seven years before me from nursing college. The year was 1952. Shortly thereafter, with her husband and two little boys she moved from Allentown, Pa., all the way out to Los Angeles, Calif.
Distance kept us apart for several years. The next time I heard from Lynn, she informed me she was coming back to Allentown to have her brother-in-law, a surgeon, perform surgery on her right breast to remove a cancer.
While visiting with her, I saw my young, beautiful sister in pain after having her left breast and lymph nodes removed. She lifted her arm up slowly, the beginning of her “Reach for Recovery.” This was back in the 1970s.
Lynn attributed her cancer to a drug that her dermatologist prescribed to treat acne. A long-term study saw a remarkable increase in breast cancer among young females using this drug.
After her surgery and return to California, only six months later a cancer was discovered in her remaining breast. Again a mastectomy was performed. Reconstructive surgery and use of silicon to create a “breast” would be disastrous for many women and lawsuits were filed against companies supplying these implants in that era.
Lynn was a young woman when she experienced these traumatic events.
Many years passed with no recurrence of the cancer. She went on to advance her education and have a long career as a safety engineer for a large company in California. This company had interests all over the country and at sea. Her work took her to several of these sites, and she was well regarded in her field.
She also saw to it that her two boys received excellent educations, with each going on to successful professional careers, one in law and the other in rocket science.
Meanwhile, I was busy raising my three children and running a business back east. Our busy lives interrupted our sisterly relationship for many years.
Lynn found herself single again as she went into retirement, but she remained very close to each of her boys. As she reached her golden years, she retired to a condo in Long Beach, Calif.
About the time Lynn moved to Long Beach, my oldest son, a career marine, was transferred to Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., in the California high desert less than 200 miles from Lynn. This gave me the chance to renew our sisterly relationship as I combined visits with my son with visits to Lynn and her oldest son. Over the next 10 years we traded visits back and forth to the extent possible and became very close once again.
Just before our last trip out to California to visit Lynn, she moved to Laguna Woods to be closer to her younger son. During that visit, we found her with a problem in her right eye. She had surgery to correct a disfiguring condition of the eye, and the surgery seemed not to work out. Eventually, it would be learned that Lynn had been misdiagnosed and that another cancer, this time non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had occurred in that eye.
She sought treatment from an oncologist at UCLA. The treatment consisted of a grueling round of chemotherapy for a period of five months.
Yes, Lynn “graduated.” She was declared “cancer free.” We all rejoiced — prematurely.
Then cancer brought us to our knees.
This woman had a tumor diagnosed in the same eye again, less than a year later. Her oncologist referred her to a radiation specialist who used a new radiation treatment that sent the damaging radiation rays to only the target area with minimal damage to intervening and surrounding organs.
They built a custom-made shield to protect her face during these treatments. She describes the wearing of this mask during treatment as like “being in a coffin as you couldn’t use any facial muscle or movement.”
So, how is Lynn’s life now?
Well, she does not dwell on her treatment, or her prognosis. Instead, she busily gives me another recipe for when I serve guests. The other day, when I discussed mammograms and radiation risks, she vehemently replied “They saved my life!”