Home Susan Yerkes Celebrating hope

Celebrating hope

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I’ll never forget the first time a friend told me she had breast cancer. It was 30 years ago, and Jeannie Frieden and I were going for our weekly walk. She had just been diagnosed, didn’t know what treatment she needed or what would happen next.

Yet, she was sure about one thing — she wanted to help other women. And, she did.

Frieden was lucky. Her physician, Russ Norman, had detected a small, suspicious spot during her routine mammogram. He suggested a biopsy and they caught the killer early. Today, Frieden is a three-decade survivor.

Two years after Frieden’s diagnosis, she went to work for what was then called the Cancer Therapy & Research Center. One of her first projects was Bosom Buddies, a breast-cancer awareness initiative. You signed up for free with a friend, received information about the disease, as well as self-exam shower cards and regular reminders.

Every month, you and your partner prompted each other to conduct self-examinations.

“Now there’s great new mammogram equipment, but self-exams can still make the difference,” Frieden said. “I know a lot of women who first found their breast cancer that way, and finding it early is the key.”

Bosom Buddies brought ladies together to talk about the ailment, and share hope and support. Which reminds us, while October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, women should be vigilant year-round.

Oncologist Amy Lang has worked with breast-cancer patients at The START Center for Cancer Care for years.

“So much has changed, from better prognosis to more minimal treatment, less chemo, much less agony in terms of drug side effects, and less fear,” Lang said.

“Twenty years ago people would whisper the C-word,” the physician added. “Now, with the explosion of breast-cancer advocacy, it’s a whole new world. Someone is diagnosed, and her friends often come out of the woodwork to support her.”

Such a groundswell of encouragement is vital to the nonprofit ThriveWell Cancer Foundation’s DIVA program, which focuses on positive lifestyle changes for female patients through better exercise, nutrition and inspiration. Lang helped start the organization.

In her work at START, Lang sees great hope, too. 3D mammograms offer more likelihood of early detection, and new drugs, promising clinical trials and hormone therapy can significantly prolong remission, she said. Immunotherapy, now widely used in some other cancers, is developing as an approach to breast-cancer treatment, too. Plus, clinical trials at the START Center and also at the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson are creating possibilities for the better.

As leader of the Mays Center breast-cancer program, Dr. Virginia Kaklamani also sees increasing optimism for the afflicted. Hope is important, too.

“Data shows us stress weakens the immune system, and patients that have positive attitudes can do better,” Kaklamani said. “Today, women with breast cancer are living longer. Today, it is considered a chronic disease, and we can cure the majority. But, even in those whose cancer metastasizes, survival is better.”

When I decided to write this column, I reached out to Frieden. Though retired, she still talks to women about the ailment, listens, cheers them on and lifts them up.

“When I say 30 years (as a survivor), that gives people hope,” she concluded.

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