It just happened again.

I was talking with someone I’ve known for quite a while now – she’s the founder of a women’s writing group I belong to – and our conversation turned to medical issues. At one point, I made a reference to the heart damage I sustained years ago from chemotherapy, and then I saw my friend’s jaw drop. She stared at me for a moment before replying.

“That’s two things I just learned about you that I never knew before,” she said, meaning that in addition to what I had just told her – about the heart damage – was the unspoken information relayed by the word “chemo,” which is the fact that I’ve had cancer.

“It’s amazing how many in our group have had it, isn’t it?” my friend continued.

Yes and no. I don’t know the exact statistics and demographics of cancer in general, and breast cancer in particular, so I couldn’t say how many women are likely to have had cancer in a group that includes the number and ages of women in our writers’ group. I do know, however, that after one person is diagnosed with the disease, or shares her story of having cancer, it’s common for others who have been silent to open up about their experiences as well.

People have different reasons for talking about having had cancer, and different reasons for not doing so. In my case, it was so long ago, and it’s such a part of my history, that it seems like something that everyone who has known me for any length of time already knows. I grew up in the Chicago area. I have two kids.
I’m a writer. I had cancer.

But every once in a while it catches someone off-guard. And it’s at times like these that I realize I’m not doing all I could be doing for breast cancer awareness – including one of the most important jobs, which is to take some of the fear away for others, and to offer them encouragement, hope, and reassurance. To let people know not only that breast cancer isn’t an automatic death sentence, but that survivors can live long, active, fulfilling, and enjoyable lives after being diagnosed and treated. The key is in not ignoring symptoms or suspicions, or delaying the appointments and tests that can result in a diagnosis of cancer and a discussion of treatment options.

I became keenly aware of this during my most recent trip to Uganda, when a young mother – after hearing about my breast cancer – spoke up about her disease, and was then diagnosed and successfully treated for breast cancer. After that, we learned of a number of women in Uganda who had discovered lumps in their breasts, but weren’t doing anything about it – because of fear and because they were too busy taking care of their families to take care of themselves. But mostly because of fear.

Although I’m not a doctor, a nurse, a counselor, or any type of professional who can offer medical assistance or care to cancer patients, I am a survivor who is now living a full and active life. And that’s the awareness I want to share with others – that cancer doesn’t define me or limit me in any way. If that information can ease the mind and bring comfort to women – and men – who are just now facing the fear and uncertainty that comes with a diagnosis of cancer, then it’s information I don’t want to withhold.

I will never go around carrying a sign or wearing a t-shirt that says, “Ask me about my cancer.” Or introducing myself to someone by saying, “Hi. I’m Betty, and I’m a breast cancer survivor.”

But I’ll look for opportunities to share that information with people who can be helped by it. Because cancer still takes way too many lives. And because the fear of cancer keeps too many people from seeking a diagnosis and treatment.

And because talking about it might save someone’s life.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on October 24, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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