By Andrea Reiser
Breast cancer. They’re two small words that barely take up any space on a piece of paper, but they have the power to spark great fear, grief, sadness, and regret—and they’ve irrevocably changed the lives of millions of women across the country, including myself.
When I was in my late thirties, testing revealed that I’m a carrier of the BRCA-1, or breast cancer, gene.
I was prompted to have genetic testing after my mother and younger sister were identified as carriers, following my mom’s 2004 breast cancer diagnosis. Sadly, she lost her valiant battle the next year, just a week after her sixty-third birthday, and within months, my sister was undergoing treatments to remove a (thankfully) microscopic tumor. As a forty-year-old wife and mother of four amazing young boys—and knowing my family history and genetic predisposition—I decided the wisest option for me was to be proactive, so I underwent a prophylactic mastectomy in 2007.
The decision I made was out of good, prudent sense—and it changed my life in an unexpectedly positive way. As I emerged from my surgery, I could practically see the headline “Life Is Short—Choose to Live the Life You Want” flashing before me in bright lights.
After I awoke in the hospital after my mastectomy, I think I truly understood and appreciated just how short and precious life is—and also for the first time, I asked myself honestly if mine looked the way I really wanted it to.
Inspired by my revelation, my entire family—myself, my husband David, and our four school-aged sons—relocated to a new community within three months: one that offered a variety of professional, social, cultural, and educational opportunities we had long wished for. We haven’t looked back, and we’ve since discovered the true joy of living a life without regrets. That’s not all, though: it also inspired David and me to write Letters From Home, which is written in the form of letters to our sons and explores fifteen basic American virtues that foster fulfillment and regret-less success.
I absolutely cannot stress enough how far-reaching and pervasive of a regret ill health can be, especially when it might have been prevented. Yes, there are many illnesses and accidents that can’t be stopped or prevented—but breast cancer isn’t always one of them. Because I’ve lived it firsthand, I know that facing even the possibility of breast cancer can be terrifying—but I also know that getting screened regularly is one of the most important things a woman can do for herself in the long run.”
In fact, my experience has prompted me to be proactive in reaching out to, supporting, and encouraging all of the women in her life.
Every year at the beginning of October—which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—I write what I call a ‘love letter’ and send it to all of my girlfriends. I tell them how much they mean to me, and urge them with all the love in my heart to do what’s in their power to achieve early detection and prevention. They know I’ll even go with them to their appointments if they’d like.
This year, I want my love letter to circulate well beyond her personal circle of friends.
Ideally, I’d like to personally urge every woman in America to go to the doctor and choose knowledge over fear. The truth is, none of us is untouched by breast cancer. If you haven’t had a scare or a diagnosis yourself, I can sorrowfully say with confidence that you know someone who has. Please, let’s all remember that we’re empowered to make a difference for ourselves and in the lives of others!”
Read on for my Wish-List Love Letter to women everywhere—and to you particularly.
Dear Fabulous Ladies,
As you know, October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With love to those who are currently fighting this disease, with gratitude for my own immense blessings, and with hope for the future, I want you all to know the following.
My wish for you is that…
…You will find the courage to face the reality of breast cancer. The fact that no one is immune to breast cancer is truly frightening, and many women prefer to live under a rock, not thinking or talking about the disease—as though what they aren’t aware of won’t or can’t hurt them. That’s just not true. Trust me, I know that it takes courage to admit that breast cancer is a very real possibility for you and for those you love. However, it’s also a crucial step to take because not doing so could turn out to be a tragic regret.
…You will resolve to achieve early detection. It’s tough to acknowledge that breast cancer might conceivably touch your life…but it can be even tougher to take the first tangible steps toward finding out, such as setting up an appointment for screening. If you need to, find a friend to come to your house while you place that first phone call to the doctor’s office and to accompany you to your appointment. If you find yourself faltering, repeat to yourself the catchy and encouraging tweet of actress and cancer survivor Fran Drescher (who also founded the early-detection group Cancer Schmancer): “If u catch it on arrival, 95% survival.” Those are some pretty good odds.
Oh, and if you don’t think you can afford screening or aren’t sure if your insurance covers it, please don’t give up at the starting line. Contact your health care provider and ask what your options might be. For example, many hospitals and clinics offer free mammograms to qualifying women!
…You will know your family history. As fully as you’re able, find out what your family’s history with breast cancer is, and make sure your doctor is aware of it. This way, he or she will be able to tell you if you need to begin screening at an earlier age than is normally recommended. If your family history of breast cancer is fairly strong, consider genetic testing for the BRCA gene mutation. I know from experience that getting the results of the test is truly the scariest part of that whole experience. Knowledge really is power!
…You will commit to regular self-exams. The fact of the matter is, you are your own best first line of defense—not your doctor. It’s crucial to be familiar with the look and feel of your breasts, and to check them regularly for lumps or changes. Regardless of your age or family history, getting checked by a doctor once a year is not enough! In fact, doctors recommend that you perform a self-exam once a month. You can find information about proper technique and what to look for on the websites of organizations including Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the American Cancer Society.
…You won’t hesitate to get definitive answers. If you detect something even mildly suspicious during a self-exam, go have it checked out right away. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be proactive about asking questions, and to push for further testing if you feel it’s necessary. Sadly, many women have faced long, hard breast cancer fights that might have been shortened or even prevented by an earlier diagnosis. Trust me: you need to be your own advocate! Being “reasonably sure it’s nothing” isn’t enough in this case.
…You will get regular screenings. True; mammograms and MRIs aren’t in anyone’s definition of “fun,” but they can save your life. If you are due (or overdue) for a mammogram, please call today to schedule it. If this is your first screening and you’re scared to go, or if you continually put off appointments because you dread them, ask a close friend to accompany you and hold your hand in the waiting room. The two of you might even plan to get lunch, a glass of wine, or a big hot fudge sundae afterwards. Believe me, that’s standard procedure for me and my girlfriends, and we highly recommend it!
…You will reach out to women who are fighting a breast cancer battle. Just shy of one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime during their lives. Odds are, you know someone who is currently fighting this disease, so let her know that she isn’t alone. When you reach out, let women who are undergoing treatment know that you’re thinking of them, and find out if and how you can be of help. Remember, though, that everyone is different, and that you need to be respectful of and sensitive to how each person chooses to handle things. I know some women who have wanted loads of support and company, and others who bristle at the thought of one more person tipping her head slightly, lowering her voice woefully, frowning, and asking, “How are you?”
…You will actively fight for a cure. Whether you’re lucky enough to have healthy breasts, are currently fighting breast cancer, or are a survivor of the disease, strongly consider helping to fund research for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. Make a donation to support the pursuit of a cure to one of the many extraordinary organizations doing invaluable, life-changing work in this area, or get involved in a breast cancer walk, run, or other fundraiser. Don’t ever think that what you can give is too insignificant: every dollar can make a difference to women who are courageously battling for their lives.
Personally, I make a donation to fund breast cancer research each year in loving memory of my beautiful, beloved mom who lost her battle almost five years ago now. Also, my husband and I are incredibly proud to donate half the royalties from the publication of Letters From Home to two organizations that support hereditary breast and ovarian cancer research: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (www.mskcc.org) and FORCE (www.facingourrisk.org). (We are pleased to donate the other 50 percent of the royalties to Share Our Strength (www.strength.org), which strives to end childhood hunger in America.)
No matter who you are, what you do, or where you live, there are people who love you. There are girlfriends who turn to you for laughter, support, and group trips to the bathroom. There are family members who would be lost without your love. There are co-workers who appreciate your contributions, and neighbors who look forward to your wave while they’re watering the flowers.
For the sake of all of these people—but most of all, for your own sake—please don’t let breast cancer join your list of regrets. Do everything you can to be aware, vigilant, informed, proactive, and empowered.
About the Authors:
A graduate of Boston University College of Communication, Andrea Reiser is an alarm clock, banker, censor, chauffeur, cheerleader, chef, chief justice, chore delegator, coach, concierge, confidante, correctional officer, crossing guard, curfew warden, diplomat, disc jockey, entertainer, fashion stylist, facilities manager, hairdresser, homework advisor, housekeeper, hygiene consultant, internet safety monitor, inventory manager, juggler, loan officer, lost-and-found attendant, magician, nurse, paramedic, party planner, peacekeeper, personal assistant, purchasing agent, recreation director, referee, reference librarian, relationship specialist, repairperson, shepherd, shipping/receiving agent, snuggler, teacher, transportation coordinator, travel agent, waitress, and zookeeper. More simply put, she’s a mom with a sense of humor. A co-author of Wealthbuilding: Investment Strategies for Retirement and Estate Planning (Wiley, 2002), Andrea’s interests include cooking, live music, fine dining, interior decorating, nonfiction reading, digital photography, blogging, musical theater, and root-root-rooting for the Boston Red Sox. In addition, she’s on a never-ending quest to create the world’s yummiest chocolate chip cookie.
David Reiser is a senior vice president–wealth management at MorganStanley SmithBarney, with offices in Westport, Connecticut, and Newport, Rhode Island. With over 24 years of professional wealth management experience, he is a Certified Financial PlannerTM, a Senior Investment Management Consultant, and serves on MSSB’s Consulting Group Advisory Board. David is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He holds an MBA from The Lally School of Management & Technology and an MS from the College for Financial Planning. He is a co-author of Wealthbuilding: Investment Strategies for Retirement and Estate Planning (Wiley, 2002), and has appeared on CNBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, Bloomberg TV, and PBS. In his free time, David enjoys fine dining, Broadway theatre, and bodysurfing with his four sons at the beach in Amagansett, New York.
About the Book:
Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth (Wiley, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-4706379-2-0, $27.95, www.ReiserMedia.com) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.
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