In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Denny Morrison, Ph.D., shares his personal experience with his wife’s diagnosis and the impact it had on her physical and mental health. It’s a story many of us can relate to – how a monthly awareness initiative seems so distant until suddenly it becomes all too close to home.
I knew this month, like many of the “Awareness” months, was important, but it was an abstract thought, something difficult to relate to on a personal level – until my wife, Marsha, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, it has been all too real.
About three years ago, her annual mammogram showed a spot that was not there previously. A biopsy confirmed it was cancer. The tumor was small. Directly attributable to having regular mammograms. A lumpectomy removed the tumor and she received a very interesting and seemingly unusual radiation treatment called SAVI, which consisted of two treatments per day for five days. She did not receive chemotherapy since the projections of benefit did not outweigh the problems.
It might be helpful to know something about Marsha. At age 60 she became a competitive powerlifter. If you are like me, you may not know the difference between bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting. Powerlifting is a competition based on how much weight a person can lift. It consists of three lifts – bench press, deadlift and squat.
Marsha was 64 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and two weeks after her radiation treatment, she won her age group in the National Powerlifting Championships. As cancer treatments go, we both felt that while this wasn’t easy, it paled compared to the hell other women endure when getting cancer treatment. She would have regular checkups with her oncologist for the foreseeable future but, in general, we felt like she had caught it early and dealt with it. And we were right – until we weren’t.
About a year ago, during one of her regular visits to her oncologist, her cancer markers were elevated slightly. They were still within normal limits and her oncologist was not concerned about them. Still, Marsha wanted to be sure and she convinced the oncologist to do further testing. A PET scan revealed a mass in the armpit lymph node on the same side as the original tumor. It proved to be cancerous as well. Surgery removed the lymph nodes and this time, Marsha opted for as aggressive a treatment regimen as possible since we thought we dealt with this already and didn’t want to be in the same position two years from now.
So, she received 16 chemotherapy and 23 radiation treatments over about nine months. She lost her hair (as did I in support of her), was very ill and very tired through most of this. But she never stopped going to the gym. She had to lower how much she lifted, sometimes not lifting at all – but she still went. She wanted to maintain her physical strength, but the main reason was for her mental health. Her coach, training partner and others there constituted her “gym family” and as she explained to me at the time, “they don’t treat me like I’m sick”.
Her last treatment was several months ago, and her lifting regimen has returned to its previous levels. Still, between surgery, chemo, radiation and ongoing medication to lower her estrogen levels, she really wasn’t sure her body was capable of returning to its previous capabilities. She still lifts far more than I could ever hope to, but this is a woman who wants to compete at the national and international level and neither of us knew whether that would be physically possible given all she has been through.
About a month ago, at age 66, she set an all-time personal record in bench press. Aside from the happiness setting a new PR yields, this also proved her body could probably respond like it used to. As a result, she will soon return to competitive lifting. Her hair is growing back (though not as quickly as she would like).
Every cancer survivor’s journey is different, and few are competitive powerlifters (though the literature tells us lifting weights has huge benefits for women.) But the takeaways from Marsha’s experience are pretty universal.
Do self-exams regularly
Get mammograms regularly
Be assertive with your healthcare provider. It’s your health.
Stay as active as possible
Use your support system
Prioritize your mental health
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is not an abstraction; it is real, and it is treatable. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.
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