Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 19, 2012

Humbled by the fighters, survivors

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— During the course of the past week, I have gotten to meet and speak with some of the most amazing women in the two Virginias.

As I work on stories for the Daily Telegraph’s breast cancer awareness page, I am constantly reminded of a statistic: one in eight women in American will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Sitting at my desk every day, I can usually easily count eight women in our office. I can name eight women in my immediate family easily. Anyone can easily think of eight women they know, but most of us don’t grasp the reality of it.

In the past week, I have spoken with several women who have helped me put a face on that statistic. These women are not numbers, but people who could easily be my mother, my sister, my aunt, and my friend.

•••

The word “routine” has come up a lot in talking with these women. I have heard about the first signs coming from an otherwise “routine” doctor’s visit or a “routine” self-examination. Routine seems such an odd word to place next to cancer. There is nothing “routine” about cancer.

I must admit, I am probably like the majority of women in that I do not look forward to my own “routine” doctor’s visit. In fact, I usually don’t hesitate in putting off doctor’s and dentist’s appointments if I get called up to reschedule, even though I know they are important and I should go. I know deep down a few moments of awkwardness at the doctor’s office is much better than months and even years of intense treatment.

I also know that my age isn’t something that shields me. Though the risk factors for breast cancer are significantly high for women over 40, I know women even younger have been diagnosed. I know there are women my age, still in their 20s, facing this disease.

When I was in college, our student newspaper did a profile on a student diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 20 and had a double mastectomy. Even though I saw it there on the page in black and white, it was still hard for me to reconcile such a heinous disease with someone my own age. The invincibility of youth is just wishful thinking.

•••

Though I am young and consider myself in pretty good health, I still have a mother and grandmother who nag me to go to my annual doctor’s check-ups regardless. I admit I should be more attentive than most when it comes to my own health.

When I was 16, my father’s sister was diagnosed with a type of cancer that only impacts women. She had the final stage of cervical cancer when she was diagnosed. She was only in her 30s. By the time they caught her cervical cancer, it had spread to her uterus, her kidneys, liver and bones. The doctors said there was nothing that could be done. She hadn’t been to the doctor in a while, and possibly could have caught it earlier on. She managed to live six months after her diagnosis.

However, her battle with cancer made a very deep impression on me as a teenage girl. It instilled in me then a sense of how important those “awkward” exams are at the doctor’s office, how even someone so young could be susceptible to a disease like cancer.

I had visited relatives with cancer before, but mainly distant cousins, great aunts or uncles. Many of them seemed to be much older than me. This was the first time it hit home, the first time I realized cancer doesn’t care about your age, your family, your gender or anything else.

It also made me a little angry that there was a bit of taboo surrounding these cancers women were battling. It annoys me that there are still people who think words like “breast cancer” and “cervical cancer” shouldn’t be mentioned, shouldn’t be talked about. Cancer may be a “dirty word” but it is still something people need to address. It is something we all need to talk about.

•••

As I am writing this, I am counting down to my own yearly doctor’s exam. Though I know it will probably be uncomfortable, I also know it is a necessary discomfort. My fingers are crossed that all the news will be good, and with hope I won’t be back at the doctor’s office for some time. After all, I have been lectured enough by the women I have spoken to this week about how important taking care of myself is.

I owe much more than thanks to these women for sharing their stories. Whether cancer free or still in the midst of their battles, they have taught me that even in the darkest days you can still smile, still laugh and still fight on. These women are fighters and survivors, and I am humbled by the opportunity to get to know them.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.