A BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR’S STORY
The group of women assembled in the library conference room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, some breast cancer survivors and others just eager to increase their understanding of the disease, listened intently as Karen Robinson shared details of what she calls her cancer journey. “Whenever I talk about my story, I get emotional because of God’s grace,” said a teary Robinson, Ph.D., RN, and Assistant Professor of Nursing at Marquette University, and Certified Nurse Midwife. “It was in June 2012. I had just buried one of my best friends from seventh grade. She had three children. We would celebrate her 37th birthday the next month. And she passed away from breast cancer. She was a physician. So, I tell people that breast cancer does not discriminate based on socioeconomic status, education, or anything else.”
Weeks later, while sitting in an examining room at the doctor’s office with her husband, they were given the news, ‘We believe that you have breast cancer.’ According to the radiologist, the cancer was deep within my breast tissue and barely detectable. “The first thing I thought of is I’m going to die because that’s what happened a few months ago to someone who looked just like me. I have a three-year-old and a seven-year-old, and you’re telling me I have breast cancer.”
After getting over the initial shock of her diagnosis, Robinson realized the urgency to create a plan to confront this crisis. “I needed to get going because I have folks that I had to live for. I didn’t want to live in fear. So, instead of living with the anxiety that someday I may receive the same diagnosis for my right breast, I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy or removal of all tissue from both breasts.”
A seven-year survivor, recalling that time in her life, Robinson said, “I had two surgeries — one to remove the tumor in my breast and, a week later, another for the reconstruction of both breasts.” Referring to the potential cosmetic benefits that she missed taking advantage she recalled, “The plastic surgeon told me that fat could be used from any part of my body to reconstruct my breast. He asked what size I wanted to be. I didn’t think that this was an opportunity to flatten my stomach or reduce the size of my thighs. I just wanted the cancer removed.”
“Because of early diagnosis, my cancer was detected, and I survived. I had radiation and didn’t even get sick. So I felt like my cancer journey was too easy. It was hard for me to grasp that I survived.” Consequently, after these surgeries, Robinson had yet another dilemma — survivor’s guilt. (Survivor guilt, also called survivor syndrome or survivor’s disorder is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.)
She said, “It was a battle, but finally I’m able to walk not in fear but faith.”
Spreading the gospel about breast cancer
Speaking to women gathered in Kenosha on a Saturday morning, she says, “It pains me to say this, but it’s true. Breast Cancer is almost common among African-American women. And because of late diagnosis and health disparities such as access, bias, and discrimination in treatments, we are more likely to die from this disease. We are frequently dismissed by systems, providers, and family.”
Emphasizing personal responsibility in fighting breast cancer, she urges women to be proactive. “Women should know the health histories of both sides of their family. If a close family member (s) has had breast cancer, ask your doctor about tests that are best for you.
During your regular medical checkup, request a breast exam by either the nurse or doctor. Everyone is different. Know what normal is for your breast.
Get a mammogram every year, starting at age 45, younger if you are at risk.Examine your breast regularly. See a doctor as soon as possible if you notice any changes that you can see or feel around your breasts, such as a lump, hard knot, or thickening inside the breast or under your arms. Look for dimples or puckering on your breast, any change in the color or texture, also sores or a rash on your nipples.
Encouraging personal responsibility, Underwood advises, “Be aware of your day-to-day lifestyle choices. Make necessary changes, including diet, weight, and exercise. Don’t smoke. Limit alcohol. Also, limit the use of menopausal hormones.
Remember, breast cancer is not a death sentence.