Testing for cancer saves lives. I am proof.
Six years ago, at the beginning of October, I underwent my annual mammogram. A few days later there was a message on my answering machine that I needed to contact the imaging center for further testing. Later that month, I endured another mammogram, two ultrasounds, and an MRI, all which confirmed the initial radiologist finding: I had breast cancer.
I am not sure what scared me more: battling the disease or calling my father on the phone to let him know. I don’t think most women would be scared to break the news to their father, to let him know that his daughter has breast cancer. However, it had nothing to do with me. My mother had died from breast cancer in 2007.
Family History of Cancer
I grew up in Colorado alongside my two sisters, parents and two sets of grandparents. In 1983, my senior year of high school, my paternal grandfather was in the hospital battling prostate and bone cancer. The cancer ultimately took his life.
This was the first time cancer had impacted my life in some way. When I was a kid no one ever talked about cancer. I can’t even remember when I first learned the meaning of the word “mammogram,” the test that would eventually come to play such a big part in my life.
Then, cancer struck my family again. In the mid-1990s while I was working in Northern California, I received a call that my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. My knowledge of cancer had not changed: it was an incredibly lethal disease, one that my grandfather had died from just a decade earlier. I was worried.
My father had surgery and radiation treatments: after a long battle, he ended up conquering his cancer. His life returned to normal, he is still alive to this day, and he has a brand new outlook on life. During his last visit at the treatment center, he brought pastries for all of the personnel who helped him during his treatment as a token of his gratitude.
Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer and breast cancer are uniquely related. Both men and women carry what’s known as the BRCA gene, the mutation of which is highly associated with breast cancer. However, men who carry this same mutation are at a high risk of developing prostate cancer. Since this condition can be inherited from a parent, it is critical children get tested for the BRCA gene mutation if their father is known to carry the mutation as well.
I tested negative for the BRCA mutation; however, my father and I share a bond that has brought us closer together. We are both survivors. To celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday he and I walked the survivor lap at the local Relay for Life. Over 25 years ago I started raising money and walking in breast cancer events. Three years ago, I received an email about the Sacramento area ZERO Prostate Cancer walk. I signed up and walked alongside my father. Last year I participated in San Francisco; this year, due to COVID-19, my 5K was done on the treadmill.
My breast cancer treatment involved a single mastectomy, so I visit the imaging center annually for my screening, cross my fingers, and hope for a clean bill of health. My father still has his PSA levels tested regularly via a simple blood test. They are consistently low which to me means he has a clean bill of health.
Years of cancer walks and volunteering for cancer organizations has taught me plenty. For instance, the initial screening for prostate cancer is a simple blood test. Yes, a simple blood test. Trust me: as a survivor that must still undergo mammograms annually, I would take a monthly mammogram over the mastectomy in a heartbeat. These are both simple tests. So why not do it? If not for you, do it for your loved ones and for your family. Do it for survivors like myself, so that I know my words did not fall on deaf ears.