On the inside of Lori York’s right arm, there is a long, reddish-brown patch of skin about the size of a bookmark that looks like a burn. That mark is the reason for the smile on her face when we met for coffee this week. Lori is undergoing chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. She was ready to begin her second round this week when the mark on her arm appeared, a side effect of the drugs.
Her doctor decided to postpone her treatment for a week to allow for healing. The delay meant Lori could enjoy another week of feeling good, of fall weather and a trip to the Pumpkin Festival this weekend with her family.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the exception of some forms of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. In 2007 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), 202,964 women were told they had breast cancer, and 40,598 women died from the disease, the CDC says.
But between 1997 to 2007, the number of deaths from breast cancer dropped by 2 percent per year, according to the CDC.
For Lori, who is 43, the awareness of breast cancer is right at her doorstep. Since the beginning of July, she’s lost her breasts and her hair to the disease. Every three weeks until Christmas, she’ll have chemotherapy treatments. And for weeks after her bilateral mastectomy, she couldn’t lift her 21/2-year-old daughter Cassie. When her hair fell out over Columbus Day weekend, Cassie said to her, “Mommy, put your hair back on!”
But Lori has an upbeat attitude.
When I meet her at a local bakery, she says, “Bet is wasn’t hard to figure out which one was me, huh?”
She’s sporting a pretty purple corduroy hat. She is clearly bald underneath, but her brown eyes are bright and cheerful. She is wearing pink lipstick, a colorful scarf and a big smile.
Lori is a stay-at-home mom to Cassie and 9-year-old Chloe. She and her husband, Dan, moved to Keene from Burlington, Vt., a few years ago. And Lori is happy to be here, blessed to be in a nice community where she can go for walks every day. Her family has been given gifts of food, part of a “food train” formed by parents and staff members at her daughter’s school. She feels good about the medical care she is receiving here in Keene. And, as she says of her cancer, “It’s a blip on the screen in the big picture.”
Michelle White-Malcolm was 35 when she discovered she had breast cancer two years ago. She wasn’t old enough to be having mammograms yearly — 40 is the suggested age for that — but her doctor discovered a lump in her breast. A mammogram was followed by an ultrasound and then a biopsy. Michelle had a lumpectomy followed by eight rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments. They treated her cancer very aggressively, she says, because they found a small amount of cancer in a lymph node.
Michelle, who worked for a public relations firm in Concord, is married to Nigel Malcolm, who teaches at Keene State College. Her family is spread out across the country. She worked as much as she could throughout her surgery and treatment, but eventually had to leave her job to continue to heal.
Today, she is ready to go back to work and is exploring her options. She volunteers at the Monadnock Humane Society and at Joy’s Network, a group that provides support, funds, information and outreach to people with cancer and their loved ones.
Michelle has a big crop of curly dark hair covering her head. She carries a pink and black Hello Kitty bag into the bakery and gives me a gift of pink Post-it notes, the color used to promote breast cancer awareness. She is at the young end of the age spectrum for breast cancer and the severity of her treatment has taken its toll.
On the day we met, Michelle’s big smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. She tells me that October is the anniversary month of her diagnosis. This time of year is a stark reminder of the challenges she’s had to face, the surgery, the aggressive treatments, leaving her job.
“Emotionally, it’s overwhelming, trying to grasp the enormity of having cancer. It’s stressful. You have faith in the doctors, but there are lots of questions.” And normally, she says, her cancer feels like it’s in the distance. This time of year, she says, the emotions all come back, “and it feels very close.”
Dr. Steven Larmon, who has worked at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth Hitchcock-Keene in oncology for 21 years, says the treatment for breast cancer is different for each woman. But because of much more research available, “We know better what treatment options are best,” he says.
Also, although mammograms are still the best the best tool available for detecting breast cancer, “It only picks up about 70 percent of cancers,” he says. Ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology help greatly in early detection.
Larmon noted a study that came out this week indicating that radiation treatment after chemotherapy for breast cancer patients who had lumpectomies meant longer survival rates. He also cited studies being done in California involving genetics that will better determine highly individualized treatment for breast cancer.
When I tell him that I’ve spoken to two women who have incredibly positive spirits in the face of breast cancer, he says, “I see a lot of that every day.”
Lori and Michelle are friends and go for walks together weekly. Michelle helps other women climb through the jungle of emotional struggles through her work at Joy’s Network. Lori has always supported breast cancer charities, and has participated twice in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Manchester, Vt., and in Relay for Life events over the years.
Michelle’s grandmother died from breast cancer. Lori has no cancer history in her family.
Lori tells me that things could be worse. “Some people are missing limbs.” And breast cancer is more common than other forms of cancer, so she is able to get good treatment that has a lot of science behind it.
Michelle is also smiling at life, knowing that she is blessed to be on the other side of her treatment. October is making her a bit melancholy, but, she says, “We’re going to just plow through this.”