Breast cancer survivors give advice in panel discussion

If you had shown up in the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus Center Den last Wednesday looking a panel discussion on breast cancer, you may have thought it was the wrong place. Balloons, cake, pink punch and shared laughter exuded an air of festivity rather than serious lecture. And indeed it was a celebration – a celebration of life.

Sponsored by University Advancement, the 2001 Homecoming Committee, Campus Diversity and Compliance and Alaska Quarterly Review, the panel consisted of three breast cancer survivors. Susan Ruddy, a five-year breast cancer survivor, Vice Chancellor of University Relations Lea Anne McWhorter, a 12-year survivor and volunteer with the American Cancer Society and Carla Williams, with the Alaska Breast Cancer Advocacy Program, shared their personal experiences and practical knowledge.

Williams spoke of statistics and facts about breast cancer. Every 3 minutes a woman in the United States dies of breast cancer and every 12 minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Approximately 200 to 250 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in Alaska, Williams says.

While the rates of breast cancer seem to be increasing due to better screening, early detection is causing the mortality rate to decreases, Williams says. She noted that the actual cause for breast cancer is unknown. Risk factors such as family history and age can cause a woman to be more conscience of her chances for contracting breast cancer, but many factors cannot be controlled.

“If you are a woman, you are at risk for breast cancer…that's just the reality of it,” Williams says.

McWhorter spoke of the importance of early detection and self-examination as someone who discovered a questionable lump in her breast on her own. She was an active 32-year-old wife and mother when diagnosed.

“Here was this dark shadow over everything,” McWhorter says.

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Women over 20 are encouraged to conduct self breast exams monthly and mammograms once a year beginning at age 40. However detected, the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of survival.

“The bottom line is, early detection is the key,” McWhorter says.

Ruddy's family history is permeated by breast cancer which kept her “waiting for the shoe to drop" until a mammogram confirmed her diagnosis five years ago. With less technical information than Williams or McWhorter, she spoke with expertise of the healing power of laughter.

Supportive family and friends provided Ruddy with humor through a Coming Off Party before her double mastectomy and cards reading “when life gives you lemons…put them in your bra.”

She told the men in the audience to just be there for loved ones if they are diagnosed to help them through the frightening time, and spoke about how a survivor's perspective changes.

“When you come through it, life is just so unbelievably sweet,” Ruddy says.

The event brought to a close Breast Cancer Awareness Month with words and information to help women remain aware of their health throughout the year. Cake was served to remind women the importance of yearly mammograms.

Information was available on self-exams and breast cancer resources. The Alaska Quarterly Review, which is donating a portion of their proceeds from their current issue to breast cancer research, was also on hand.

With an audience of approximately 20, perhaps the most frightful part of the event was that more people did not receive the information and words of wisdom from the three survivors that could save their lives or lives of loved ones.