Three generations of breast cancer survivorship

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2011

By Liz Wurster
For the Salisbury Post
ne of the clearest memories of my childhood was when my mother broke the news to me, a trendsetting pre-teen with sports and friends at the forefront of my mind, that she had breast cancer. I was sitting on my bed, getting ready to go to check out the cute boys at the basketball game at Knox, my middle school, when she dropped the bombshell. Suddenly, neither boys nor basketball seemed important.
One of my most pressing thoughts at the time was, “Will she die?” Though I was too terrified to articulate this fear, I most certainly entertained scenarios of life without the single most important figure in my life. A hole, burrowed by the potential for loss and grief, had begun to form in my heart.
But she was lucky, as was I. My fears were allayed: after a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, she was pronounced cancer-free, and though my stomach did flips and I bit my fingernails to the quick on the days when she took her bi-yearly trips to Duke University for her check-up, with each passing year I gained confidence in the fact that she would be here to stay.
At the time, I had never considered the possibility that I would be contemplating my own mortality in the face of the very same adversary that pulled the rug out from under my feet a mere 20 years before. At 32 years of age, you simply do not expect to suffer from these diseases that usually plague those 30 years your senior.
I suppose, however, it should have been no great shock to me. My grandmother had also battled breast cancer, though at a much later age (66), and had also undergone a mastectomy. Breast cancer had been an unwelcome visitor in my family for nearly three decades; it should have been no surprise that it decided to take up residence in my body for a short time.
But I must say, in those three decades, times have changed. Whilst my mother found a lump in her breast and was instructed to ignore it, that it was nothing to worry about, I had been undergoing mammograms for the past two years. I was also instructed by every doctor I visited to conduct breast exams regularly because I was in a high risk category due to my mother’s diagnosis before the age of 50. The moment I felt that tiny lump in my breast, every possible precaution was taken to swiftly and conclusively determine exactly what was going on in my body and to give me the best odds to live a long, healthy and happy life.
My mother’s cancer had spread to her lymph nodes by the time she underwent her mastectomy; mine was stage one, having not spread to the lymph nodes. Though my cancer, being a Her2 positive, grade 3 type of cancer, is one of the more aggressive types of cancer to have, because of early detection, my prognosis looks very good. Though I initially felt inundated with bad news, progress has allowed for my early and accurate diagnosis. Nowadays, the type and pervasiveness of cancer and even pre-cancerous cells are detectable—a luxury both my mother and grandmother weren’t afforded.
One of the most promising trends these days is that diligence and awareness seem to have replaced luck as the primary determining factor for success in the battle against breast cancer, as well as so many other diseases out there. From the rising emphasis on preventative care to treatments targeted to stymie particular types of cancer growth, we gain hope that human innovation and resolve will someday eradicate this terrible scourge.
And whereas 20 years ago the small town of Salisbury might not have possessed the resources to provide the best possible care in the region, I know from personal experience that today it boasts state-of-the-art technology and excellent health care professionals that ensure as expedient, painstaking and empowering a journey as possible.
This past weekend, at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Raleigh, some wonderful friends of mine created a team called “Walkers for Liz’s Knockers.” Walking hand in hand with my 94-year old grandmother (wow!) and my 66-year old mother, both fellow survivors, I was reminded that while challenges and tragedies can indeed test the boundaries of human endurance, they also have the potential to bring out moments of appreciation, solidarity and joy.
I was also reminded of just how much I have learned from the generations of dignified and strong women who came before me. They told me not to take anything for granted. They showed me how to fall down and then pick myself up again. But perhaps the most important message they taught me was neither articulated in words nor shown to me in actions: they instilled within me the courage to be a survivor. And that is exactly what I plan to be.