|Terri Andrews | ICS Director | Charlotte, NC|
“You have breast cancer.” Those are four words no woman ever wants to hear. And if you ever do, they are four of the SCARIEST words you’ll ever hear. I know because I heard them about a year-and-a-half ago. Not surprisingly, they changed my life forever. What has been surprising to me, however, is that not all of those changes were “bad.” Sure, I went through the seven stages of grief—shock/denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression/reflection, the “upward turn,” reconstruction and, finally, acceptance and hope. That last stage—one of hope—is where I’ve chosen to live from this point forward. And that decision, is based heavily on the numerous wonderful people I’ve met and gotten closer with during my journey over the past year-and-a-half. These people—doctors, nurses, healthcare navigators, makeup artists, counselors, family members, friends and my “sister survivors”—my angels—they all rallied around me and vowed to “love me through this.” That’s exactly what they did. And they continue to teach and inspire me.
Of all my “angels,” one in particular, my new friend and sister survivor Laura Renegar was, perhaps, one of my strongest cheerleaders—calling, texting and/or emailing before and after every doctor appointment, every chemo treatment, every surgery to check on my mental state, share words of encouragement, insights about what to expect and even tips on how to prepare to various procedures, clothing to wear (Silk pajamas work best following a mastectomy, by the way.), etc. I don’t know how I would have gotten through this experience without her.
One of the most remarkable things about Laura, however, is that she does this for SO MANY women, through her volunteer work for the American Cancer Society. After losing her own mother to breast cancer years ago, Laura wanted to make a difference so she built a team to walk in remembrance of her mother, with proceeds benefitting Making Strides Against Breast Cancer for the American Cancer Society. She appeared in local and national ads promoting Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, and her team is now the largest team in the City of Charlotte and for the past two years the largest team in the South Atlantic Division, which covers Georgia to Maryland! The Primax Pink Warriors (Laura’s team) has turned into an army of people raising awareness and raising funds for the fight against cancer year after year. She is a true “future maker,” and she makes a difference for so many people.
Now, my dream is to help Laura make a difference, by traveling to Jamaica to bring easy access to mammograms to underprivileged women who live in that country—a place that Laura’s heart calls home, even though her physical home is in North Carolina. Not only do we want to help ensure the health of these women’s bodies, but we’d like to contribute to their mental wellbeing, as well, by sharing our personal stories of survival.
Jamaican women have limited access to healthcare. And when they are fortunate enough to get an appointment for a mammogram, that often leads to a biopsy, they have to wait many weeks for the results of their biopsy to return from the United States. That’s when they receive their true diagnosis and their cancer battle begins. This is a long period of time for the Jamaican woman to wait—much more time than we experience here in the U.S—which means the disease has time to progress. Months, weeks and even days can literally be the difference between life and death with a cancer diagnosis. Doctors know this. Laura knows this. I know this. We want to bring awareness and easier access to mammograms to promote breast health for women in Jamaica. And we can do this through RSM US’ 90-90-9 – Pursue Your Passion program.
In Jamaica, the normal course of treatment for breast cancer is a mastectomy, regardless of the type, progression or prognosis of the disease, because lumpectomies require radiation, and radiation therapy devices are expensive and, as a result, are few-and-far-between in Jamaica. Laura and I have both had double mastectomies so we can mentor many women facing this diagnosis, just as we do here in the States.
Laura and I will work with the head of oncology with the hospital in Jamaica to secure access to mammography at the hospital. He is also working on getting lodging donated for Laura and me so we can focus as much of our 90-90-9 funds as possible on helping more women. Laura and I can travel to Jamaica and during our nine-day stay, bring mammograms to approximately 200 women. As part of this effort, we will share our personal stories with these women before and/or after their mammograms, diagnostic mammograms, biopsies and possible diagnoses.
Laura has already been certified by the American Cancer Society as a Reach to Recovery volunteer, and I will be certified before we leave for Jamaica. As Reach volunteers, Laura and I will help women through their experiences by offering a measure of comfort and an opportunity for emotional grounding and informed decision making. As breast cancer survivors, we will give patients and family members an opportunity to express feelings, talk about fears and concerns and ask questions of someone who’s “been there.” Most importantly, we will offer understanding, support and hope because we ourselves have survived breast cancer and gone one to live productive lives.
While Laura and I have both heard the words, “You have breast cancer,” the types of cancer we have are very different—with very different survival rates and potentials for recurrence, so we have different experiences to share. Our overarching message, however, is one of hope, encouragement and friendship. We want to let the women of Jamaica know that they are not alone. We—and RSM US—are behind them, cheering them on, so that they too can say:
“I am a survivor.”