MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Charlene Kendrick was 29 years old in 1975 when diagnosed with breast cancer.
A single mother to a 9-year-old daughter, the only thing she knew about cancer was whatever information her doctor provided - information, she said, which didn’t even include the stage of her cancer.
Information, however, that did warn her to not get stung by a bee.
“I didn’t know anything, except what they told me,” said Kendrick, who lives in Montgomery, “and precautions to take. They did a modified radical (mastectomy) and I had to learn how to use my left arm all over again.
“There was nothing as far as information that you can grab on to.”
In 2011, Kendrick’s daughter, Monica Ward, was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer.
And the information at her disposal was vast.
She had Google. Physicians she could contact. She had Facebook messenger. Women of Hope. Friends. Church members. Her mother.
“It’s like night and day,” Ward said. “Obviously, technology has come quite a long way. I had access to a lot more options as far as reconstruction. We have a lot more open dialogue with doctors today than we had back then.
“I was so blessed.”
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
As of March 2017, there are more than 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S., including women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment, according to breastcancer.org.
A woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Less than 15 percent of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it.
About 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2017, an estimated 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 63,410 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer, according to the organization.
Although breast cancer has affected women throughout history, it was considered an unspeakable condition in America until the 20th century, according to research through the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
In general, cancer was seen as an incurable disease. The American Society for the Control of Cancer, which became the American Cancer Society in 1945, was co-founded by physicians and laypeople in 1913 to change this view.
In 1970, surgeons in the United States routinely biopsied a breast lump and if malignant, performed a radical mastectomy at the same operation, considering it a life-saving procedure, according to the NIH research.
“I didn’t know anyone at the time that had breast cancer and it had not been in my family,” Kendrick said of her 1970s diagnosis. “At first, they thought it was a small cyst and that it would go away. It was by accident that I got to Emory.
“I had a biopsy, and they couldn’t find anything. They did another one, and he couldn’t tell that there was a malignancy there. I didn’t know what to expect. It was just stressful.”
By 1982, when Kendrick was diagnosed with a “precancerous condition,” she felt she had more of a grasp on the disease.
“People had started talking about it then,” she said. “When, five or six years prior, people just didn’t talk about it. But I was young, so I might have been hesitant to talk about it, then, too.”
She noticed the shift in conversation, she said, when celebrities began talking about their diagnosis in the 1970s: Babette Rosmond, an editor of Seventeen magazine; Shirley Temple (Black), childhood actress who was diagnosed in 1972; Betty Ford, First Lady, who had a malignant lump discovered.
Then came Susan G. Komen. In 1981, prior to her death from breast cancer at age 36, her sister Nancy Brinker promised she would do what she could to find a cure.
She founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1982 just two years before her own diagnosis. This was the first public effort to raise money specifically for the disease, according to NIH. It not only raises funds, but running/walking events throughout the world.
Momentum built, and in 1984, Massachusetts cancer survivor Margery Gould Rath wanted to find a way to celebrate fellow cancer survivors by raising funds for the American Cancer Society, and created Making Strides Against Cancer.
While the first even attracted 200 participants - it became known as the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer in 1993 - it has since attracted 8 million walkers to Making Strides events in more than 270 communities across the country (including Montgomery) raising more than $460 million to fight breast cancer.
Rath lost her battle with cancer in 2001.
“Back then, I was just flying by the seat of my pants,” Kendrick said. “I was just doing what the doctor told me to. We didn’t have what we have now, as far as the social media. It is just amazing, the difference.”
Today versus yesterday
Kendrick had eight surgeries between 1982 and 1992 because of ruptures on her breast prosthesis
“My ordeal lasted a long time,” she said. “Back then, we didn’t even have different types of doctors to talk to. We were at the mercy of the doctors we were dealing with. If we didn’t know, we didn’t know.”
Ward didn’t go through chemotherapy. She had a double mastectomy that “I don’t wish on anybody. We had just moved to First Baptist from Frazer (United Methodist Church), and I felt like I had two Sunday School classes competing for signing up to bring us dinner.
“We’re in the South,” she continued, laughing. “People want to help. You can’t get a cold without someone wanting to bring you a casserole.”
There’s simply more connectivity today, Ward said. And breast cancer is not as “taboo” talk about.
“It’s still somewhat of a private thing, but it’s uncommon to say in mixed company that I had breast cancer.”
Ronda Walker understands that.
The Montgomery County Commission vice chairman was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in December 2014 and her treatment lasted a full year. She went public with her diagnosis.
“I said often that I was thankful that I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 and not 1995, 1985 or 1975,” she said. “Doing research, it wasn’t too long ago that insurance wouldn’t pay for reconstruction. So I’m very thankful that insurance pays for reconstruction.
“You survive, and you’re thankful, but your body is devastated. I just can’t imagine the day when women were just left in shreds.”
Conversation, moving forward
Ward was 46 when diagnosed, and had a gene test done to make sure she wouldn’t pass on the breast cancer gene to her daughter, a recent Auburn graduate. She doesn’t.
“Thank goodness,” she said.
Conversation starts dialogue, and it allows people to share experiences, she said.
“I don’t think you can ever over-communicate,” she said. “It saves lives. Increased communication also allows people to truly understand the impact in their community and allows them to respond.
“Some people don’t want to talk about it in groups, and that’s OK. By having these social channels, you can share as much or as little as you want and still get some support that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
And by the end of October, Walker, 45, said people will be tired of the color pink.
“But it’s because we talk about it now,” she said. “We didn’t talk about it a couple of decades again. People were embarrassed to say the word ‘breast.’ It was a women’s disease. Now, it’s in the everyday conversation.
“For me, it was very cathartic to have the opportunity to speak publicly about my disease about what an absolute nightmare and painful fight for my life it was.”
Walker is this year’s featured speaker at the annual Women of Hope Signature Luncheon. On Monday, she will share her own message of hope. About taking mountains and making them an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
“And in order to do that, you have to change the way you see the mountain, and climb it without the fear of falling,” she said.
Joy to Life Foundation, a nonprofit found in 2001 by Joy Blondheim, a breast cancer survivor, and her husband, Dickie. Online: joytolifefoundation.org; Phone: 334-284-5433
Women of Hope, a group of individuals who desire to help educate, promote awareness and provide hope for individuals and families coping with and dealing with the effects of breast cancer. Online: thewomenofhope.org; Phone: 334-220- 4599
The American Cancer Society can be found online at cancer.org/fightbreastcancer or can be reached by phone at 1-800-227-2345.
This year’s Komen for the Cure race in Birmingham is on Oct. 7. For more information, and to register, visit online at ww5.komen.org.
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com
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