Commentary: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Sure, I could tell you how each year about 264,000 cases of breast cancer is diagnosed in women and about 2,400 in men in the United States. Yes, men can get breast cancer. About 42,000 women and 500 men in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer.
I could talk about how breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. (Only lung cancer kills more women each year.)
We could discuss how breast cancer death rates have been steady in women younger than 50 but have continued to decrease in older women since 2007.
I could encourage you to follow the professional’s recommendation that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every two years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor or other health care professional about when to start and how often to get a mammogram.
I could do all that, but instead I want to tell you a personal story. Cancer, after all, is personal for the patient as well as their loved ones. This may sound like a Movie of the Week, but this is a true story of my sister and her battle against breast cancer.
Robin is two years my junior in a family of five kids. She was a very shy child who loved to play with dolls. In school, she was a straight “A” student except for the first grade. She would have failed if not for her teacher understanding her shyness inhibited her learning and promoted her anyway.
Robin, the only left-handed sibling, moved into an apartment with a friend from high school. Alicia, an attractive girl with long red hair, and Robin became very good friends. I once went on a date with Alicia, but that’s another story.
My first boyfriend, John, and I sometimes visited the girls at their apartment. Robin enjoyed visiting with us and never displayed an ounce of homophobia. She treated us as she did any other couple. Alicia probably felt a little differently.
Robin and I grew very close in our early twenties. We’d hang out, go shopping and once take a day trip to Galveston Island State Park.
Then Robin met a Cajun named Bill who swept her off her feet. They got married and moved away from our hometown of Rosenberg to Pearland. Bill opened a machine shop and together they began a family.
After giving birth to two girls, a boy came along. With 6-, 4-, and 2-year-old kids, Robin was the happiest she had ever been. Then in January of 1992, she knew something wasn’t right.
She had been having a discharge from her breast for a couple of months. Without insurance or money, she postponed a doctor’s visit until she couldn’t any longer. Her worst fears had come true. She had cancer.
She not only had cancer, but it had already metastasized and begun to spread though out her body. Then the doctors dropped another bombshell on the mother of three young children. She was pregnant.
Robin and Bill’s world had come crashing down on them. Their options, according to the doctors, were to aggressively treat the cancer and abort the pregnancy, or try to deliver the baby and delicately attack the cancer. That would be done by providing low doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The medical professionals were not overly optimistic that Robin could survive either option or that they could successfully bring the baby to terms.
My sister, after consulting with her husband, decided to try to bring her fourth child into the world. My cousin Kathy and I took turns driving Robin to UTMB in Galveston three days a week for her treatments. Like anyone who has suffered with cancer or been around someone who has known, the treatments took a toll on Robin’s body.
After several months she became very weak and was in bed most of the day. My mother, nearly 70 at the time, frequently stayed at their house to watch the kids, clean, and prepare meals while Bill tried to keep a steady flow of income coming in.
Finally in August, doctors told Robin the baby was no longer progressing and advised her they needed to induce labor. Without hesitation, she signed the papers and a few hours later delivered a baby boy. He was premature and slightly affected by all the medications he had been exposed to, but otherwise healthy.
A few days later, Robin was released from the hospital to go home and be with her family that she loved so much. She never complained about her situation and always presented a strong front.
On November 16, 1992, Robin passed away peacefully at her home surrounded by her husband and four kids. She was 34.