Let's Chat: Breast Cancer Awareness Month

The Autumn of 2012 my mother sat me down and asked me if I trusted her. “Of course,” I responded. I was twelve at the time, just a month into seventh grade; the leaves of Upstate New York were beginning to morph into an array of golden promises and ruby whispers. When all I could look forward to was carving pumpkins and my biggest worry was which side of the jersey, either blue or gold, our team would wear during our next field hockey game. 

Her presence smelled of black coffee as she took my hands in hers and told me. “I want you to know you can trust me. The doctors told me I have Breast Cancer, but I am going to be just like brand new in a few months. They promised me they’re going to take care of me.” 

There is a lot you think you know when you’re twelve. You think you know fashion or sports or who you want to be when you grow up, but in that moment, everything I thought I knew shattered. Like a water glass that broke against the tiled floor, I stared at the mess; I did not know how to begin to pick up my pieces. Some things in life, I realized, you will never be able to put back together the same way they were before. 

I always knew the general idea of what Breast Cancer is and what it means. It ran through my mother’s side of the family, affecting my aunt, my grandmother, and my mom’s cousins, who were all in remission at the time of my mother’s diagnosis. That Autumn, I often fled to the security that the numbers and facts provided, as it was really all I could do to comfort myself. Today in the United States, nearly 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with Breast Cancer throughout their lives. Additionally, the five year survival rate for the US is roughly 99% (National Breast Cancer Foundation 2020). I knew my mother was strong and healthy, and I never let my faith in her fight waiver after she was diagnosed. I did not want her to think I was anxious, I wanted to be her cheerleader, so she would always know how much I believed she could win her battle. 

To remove the tumors, my mom decided to go the route of a bilateral mastectomy. This was her first surgery of many, her most recent of which she had this past January. It was about a week before Halloween when she came home from the hospital post-operation. That following Halloween night, my mom came down from my parent’s bedroom for one of the first times since she had been sent home to take pictures of my friend Lizzie and I in our costumes before trick-or-treating. Even though she couldn’t go around town with us, my mom was adamant that she be involved in the pre-candy-coma photoshoot. It was this moment, of the cameras flashing and her voice encouraging us to pose, I fully understood how strong my mother was, how strong she would continue to be throughout the rest of her battle. I am so incredibly thankful each morning I wake up and hear her voice that she is the woman she is.

As I grew older, my mom opened up to me more about her diagnosis and her fight with Breast Cancer. Knowing she was in an at-risk category (as the diagnosis was frequent in our family), she always held a bit of paranoia for when it would be ‘her turn.’ Earlier in 2012, as my mother later disclosed, she had a mammogram (an x-ray of the breast tissue, which is used to detect tumors early on to reduce the spread of cancerous cells to other areas, such as the lymph nodes) and had told her doctors that she felt a lump, which is a common early-detection method of Breast Cancer. After her first mammogram, her doctors reported back to her that nothing was wrong – the lump was not of concern. A woman true to her gut, my mother decided to seek a second opinion, going for a second mammogram from another local office. The second exam reported to her the lump she was feeling was an area of concern, and after a bit more testing, they finalized her diagnosis.

Being diligent about your own health, as my mother was, can save your life. Having mammograms at your recommended time, and seeking supplemental care when your gut raises a moment of concern, can help prevent the inevitable progression of Breast Cancer in either you or a loved one. If you are not your own advocate for your health, it cannot be guaranteed someone else will; you experience your body and how you feel, not anyone else. As members of the Greek Community, especially of Panhellenic Chapters, I urge us to reach out to our presidents and vice presidents to ask if we can set a time aside to engage in a chapter discussion about the healthy habits we can adopt to put each of our sisters at less of a risk. Breast Cancer will continue to be a battle we will fight together as sisters, arm-in-arm, through research, support, and education. October is a time for us to take a moment to talk about Breast Cancer. Think Pink: not just now, but always. 



Jenna Downey

Cornell University



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