I am very lucky to have two fantastic sisters. Born within five years of each other, we were often screaming, fighting, and ganging up two on one in our childhood years. We also covered for each other when necessary, shared a passion for horses, had long talks about life, and enjoyed a lot of laughs. For three sisters, we could not look more different. We span the spectrum on hair colour (dark brunette to blonde), body shape, and clothing choice. In fact, the three of us had been showing horses for a few years before most people at the shows realized we were sisters.
Alyssa, me (Rebecca), and Leslie (this picture is from several years ago).
As the oldest, I have always felt protective of my sisters. I never want them to be hurt, I always want to look after them, and want everything to work out perfectly for them. But that’s not always possible.
A few years ago I was having a typical day at work. I’d dealt with some upset customers, solved some issues for the technicians, and was having a nice chat with my coworker when my phone indicated I had a voicemail. The message stills plays in my brain, clear as a bell. The one sentence felt like it was on repeat as it played over and over in my head.
“Alyssa has breast cancer.”
I was sure that someone was playing a cruel joke, so as I walked out of the office and into the storage room for some privacy, I called our middle sister. Through tears, she confirmed my worst fears.
What. The. Fuck.
Excuse the language, but there was no other way for me to process my emotions. She was by far the healthiest of the three of us. She ate well, was extremely active (she had gone to university on a rowing scholarship), and was always cognizant of her health. I tried getting in touch with Alyssa and had to settle for a text. I had no idea how to be there for her, no idea what she wanted or needed, and could not begin to imagine what she was feeling.
I won’t go into the details of her battle, as she has started documenting it in a beautifully written blog, All Things Alyssa. I encourage everyone to read at least a few of her posts. Whether you’re a cancer patient, a survivor, a caregiver, or a supporter, her words will really open your eyes.
The fantastic news is that Alyssa IS a survivor. She’s in remission, has since married a wonderful man who loves her very much, and has the most adorable 7-month old son (I may be a bit biased on that, but my nephew truly is the cutest and happiest kid I’ve ever known). She has returned to school and is working on her Masters in chemical biology. Her hope is to go med school, and if there’s one thing I know about her, she can do anything she sets her mind to.
My sister found her lump while doing a self-exam. She was aware enough that she should be doing self-exams, something I’ll admit I’ve never been good at remembering. Then, despite the fact that everyone told her she was too young to have breast cancer (especially with no family history), she insisted on follow-up testing.
This is why Pinktober matters. Having a month where breast cancer patients and survivors are encouraged to share their stories, spreading awareness about screening and breast health…it’s so important!
After my sister’s diagnosis, I was enrolled in a high-risk program that meant I was scheduled for a mammogram and MRI. Following the Monday mammogram, Darrell and I went on vacation up north for a week of fishing. On the Wednesday morning I was sitting at the campsite when my phone went off. The woman on the other end of the line told me that something had been noticed on the mammogram and I needed to come in for a follow-up. Darrell returned from his walk to find me sobbing.
The rest of the week went by in a blur, as my mind kept wandering off into questions of “Is this happening?”, “Did they really find something?”. What I later found out, and wish I had been told at the time, is that many women get a call to come back in after their first mammogram. It’s not abnormal, so try not to panic.
I ended up in the hospital several more times for MRIs, mammograms, ultrasounds, and finally a biopsy. Through all of it, everyone assured me that I was too young to have breast cancer.
Really? My youngest sister’s diagnosis was the reason I was there!
Darrell came to every appointment I asked him to attend, put up with my psychosis during that time of uncertainty, and was generally just amazing. When the results of the biopsy were negative, I felt unbelievably lucky.
This summer I almost chose to skip the annual mammogram and MRI. Then I reminded myself of what my sister had been through. I read stories from breast cancer patients and survivors. I thought about how lucky I am to live in an age with screening tools (even if they’re not perfect). And I thought about how much I love my life. So I went.
Screening is important. Self-examination is important. Supporting research is important. This Pinktober, don’t get annoyed by all the pink everywhere, be thankful for the reminder to stay on top of your health. Participate in fundraising events, volunteer where you can. Donate to organizations that support patients and their family. Ask someone if they mind sharing their story with you.
Pinktober reminds me to be thankful that I have my amazing sisters in my life. They are incredible women. It reminds me not to take my own health for granted. Breast Cancer is brutal, and I long for the day when a cure is found. Until that day, a month of Breast Cancer Awareness will always be a good thing.
Take a moment to read the stories of some breast cancer survivors, including my sister, in this feature from the Hamilton Spectator.