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Wed, Oct. 23

Breast cancer has, in some way, affected all of us

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Why does that matter?

Simply because, if you think about it, you either have had breast cancer or you have been touched by it in some way.

My mother received a scare in mid-life when a mammogram showed something odd enough that her doctor wanted to do a biopsy. We all were relieved when it turned out to be benign.

The next time something cropped up on a mammogram, it wasn't so innocuous. She had breast cancer. She underwent treatment, and thankfully was cancer free for another 15 years. Then she was diagnosed with cancer in her other breast, and again, after treatment, was cancer free. Several years later, she was feeling great, when a routine blood test showed she had leukemia, and doctors gave her six weeks to live unless she submitted to some serious chemotherapy. If she did, she had a 60 percent chance of remission, they said.

Mom entered the hospital and endured a brutal course of chemo. But when it didn't work, and doctors suggested another round might give her a 30 percent chance of remission, she said no. She just couldn't do it again.

With transfusions and other medical support, she lived for another six months - long enough to see her two daughters marry, and although she couldn't be at the weddings, meet our husbands. Long enough to put her affairs in order, and to reconcile a rocky relationship with my sister. Long enough to say all the things she wanted to say, including some very detailed instructions to her husband, Harry, about how to care for her little Bichon Frise dog, who ironically, had undergone cancer treatment right along with her.

I think of the day that Mom got that call, out of the blue. She'd been out shopping, and stopped in to get a blood test. Imagine being called on the way home, asked to come back, and then hearing the news that you have six weeks to live.

That day, Mom's life as she knew it screeched to a halt and did a head spinning turn.

All of the decisions then pressed in. She chose to fight, at least for the first round. She opted out of the second.

I think of the week I spent with her that summer, when she asked me to help clean out her storage. She wanted to give everything away so it would be dealt with before she died. It broke my heart when, in tears, she said, "I hate watching all my favorite things go out the door." What she really was saying: "This reminds me that I will never use these items again."

I watched as my sister visited and they talked after a painful break when my brother died from pancreatic cancer a few years before. Tears and apologies flowed, and it was good for both of them.

As time went on, Mom didn't want anyone to see her. She only wanted her husband near, and the rest of us honored her wishes. Our last conversation was a week before she died, when we cried, and laughed, together for the last time.

That was in December 2003, and for the past 10 years, I have so many times found myself wanting to pick up the phone and call her. It's a sad silence that never seems to end.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month matters because nearly everyone I know can tell this story, in some variation, about someone close to them.

It's a good reason to do all we can to take care of ourselves, including timely mammograms. And men, you need to be aware that breast cancer also can affect you.

It's also a good time to do all we can to fight this disease, so the number of people who have painful stories like mine, and yours, will dwindle.

For more information, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation at www.nationalbreastcancer.org.

Heidi Dahms Foster is Editor, Non-Dailies at Prescott Newspapers, Inc.

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