September 17, 2001
Survivor's experience with cancer changed her life
by Deborah Stone
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation was established in 1982 by Nancy Brinker to honor the memory of her sister, Susan G. Komen, who died from breast cancer at the age of 36. The mission of the Foundation is to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening and treatment.
Each year, 111 affiliate organizations around the country each hold a walk/run event called the Race for the Cure, to raise money in support of the foundation's goal. Last year the Puget Sound Affiliate's Komen Race for the Cure raised more than $1.3 million to benefit a variety of local breast cancer programs and services. Since its beginnings in Seattle in 1994, the Komen Race for the Cure has grown from more than 3,000 participants to more than 19,000 participants in 2000.
Six years ago, Woodinville resident Diane Clark entered her first Race and began what would become an annual tradition with her and her friends, all members of Beta Sigma Phi, an international sorority that focuses on community service. She was moved by the event and its worthwhile cause and became an avid supporter of it over the years.
"It was amazing to see so many people out there helping to raise money to fight breast cancer, but what really got to me was all the women who were breast cancer survivors and the pride they had in participating in the Race."
Little did Clark know that three years later she would be diagnosed with breast cancer. "I was fifty-four and it was on Aug. 25, my wedding anniversary, that I learned that I had malignant cancer in my left breast," explains Clark. "I would never have been able to detect it because it was so tiny and it was only discovered after a routine mammogram and subsequent biopsy.
"I went in for a lumpectomy at Swedish, but the docs found another spot near the first one and told me the cancer was aggressive and that I needed a mastectomy."
Clark was in shock and cried for days. She says, "It was an incredibly numbing feeling and I felt like those first days were a blur. I kept thinking that this nightmare couldn't be happening to me."
She wanted to wait to have the mastectomy because it was six weeks before her daughter's wedding and the timing was horrible. However, her doctor urged her not to wait because the cancer was so aggressive. Clark's surgery lasted six hours and involved first a mastectomy and then a transflap procedure, which created a new breast for her using muscle below her abdomen. She was in the hospital for five days and then went home, only to return after a day and a half, as she had developed an infection.
After the surgeons removed the infected part of her newly created breast, she remained in the hospital for another five days before being sent home. Nurses came daily to her house for two weeks to change dressings and then Clark was on her own, changing her own dressings four times a day.
"I was able to make the wedding," says Clark, "but I was weak and very sore. I was determined to be there and that gave me something to focus on and look forward to while I was recovering from the surgery."
Clark was fortunate that the cancer didn't spread into her lymphnodes, which would have meant further surgery and radiation or chemotherapy. She did learn, however, that her cancer was estrogen induced.
"I had been taking the drug Prempro, a menopause drug, for four years," explains Clark, "and although I had read the research about the possible effects of it, the odds were very slim that I would get cancer. I had discounted it because the percentages were so small of that happening. I was like most people who think it won't happen to them. Little did I know!"
Clark was angry when she learned that her cancer could have been avoided.
She also discovered several other women who had had the same thing happen to them and was surprised that it wasn't as rare as she had been led to believe.
"I think the literature is misleading," comments Clark, "and that's scary."
Clark has been cancer-free these past few years and has moved on with her life, choosing not to dwell on the disease or live in fear of its reoccurrence.
She says, "I think about it only when I visit my oncologist and get a mammogram.
"It has been important for me to talk about it with family, friends and even complete strangers because it has helped me to deal with things and also bring continual awareness to the disease."
Clark feels that her experience with cancer changed her life.
She doesn't get bogged down in the little things, preferring not to let them bother her, and appreciates what she has and the people around her more.
"I realize," explains Clark, "that life can change at any minute and that it's important to enjoy each day fully.
"I'm a survivor and I'm thankful for that and for all the support I have gotten from my husband, my three daughters, my friends and the medical staff at Swedish.
"Everyone's been there for me."
Clark urges women to be faithful about getting mammograms, doing self-exams and being aware of their bodies.
She adds, "Realize though, that even when you do everything you're supposed to, it still can happen to you.
"One in eight women get breast cancer and that's a fact of life.
"This disease is not predictable and there is no known cure for it."
Clark encourages people to participate in the Race for the Cure and give their support, both financially and emotionally.
She will be there on Sept. 23, proudly wearing her pink survivor shirt and hat and continuing her annual participation in the event.
For more information on the Komen Seattle Race for the Cure, call (206) 633-0303.