National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was founded in October of 1985 with the mission of increasing awareness of breast cancer issues. Eighty five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease so early detection is one of the most important contributors to survival until the cure is found. On October 3, 2008 I met two breast cancer survivors; Sharon Rapoport, who survived her own diagnosis, and her husband John Anderson who has seen four women in his life fight to survive the disease. Sharon, John’s younger sister Mary, Caryl, a close family friend, and John’s mother Ann were all diagnosed with breast cancer. Of these four, John’s mother was the only one to die from the disease, but she didn’t go with out a fight.
John relived the moment he heard about his mother’s diagnosis. “It was 1978. I was a sophomore in college at the University of Delaware. My dad had called my roommate who had to find me. He didn’t know where I was, and I remember getting on the phone and getting my dad on the phone and he said, Ã«Your mom has breast cancer but everything’s fine.’ And the operation had already happened because back in those days they didn’t have mammograms they went in, operated and then found out what happened. I didn’t even know she was going to the hospital because they didn’t want me to know about it, which was kind of disturbing, but it was her intent that I not leave and not be there, that I should just continue on with my life and then see her when I got back home.”
“I loved her humor,” says John. “I loved her passion for life. I loved her story telling. I loved the fact that she was witty and fun and just full of life.” It was that same sense of humor that John inherited from Ann. Her ability to laugh in the face of adversity was one of her best weapons against the disease and helped her combat the ignorance and insensitivity she encountered early on.
“This was back in the late Seventies, early Eighties when women’s rights or patient rights were not as strong as they are today,” recalls John. “One of the things that was really amazing about her as well as her friend [Caryl] who was going through cancer was that they stood up to these doctors and really demanded proper care. And I think that those kind of individual moments across the country with women like her, that were doing that, really changed not only treatment of breast cancer but doctor patient relations. I remember one time when she was frustrated with her oncologist or the surgeon, but she and her friend Caryl dressed up as clowns and went in to the doctor’s office and said, ‘If you’re not going to treat us seriously maybe you will if we’re dressed up as clowns.’ And that seemed to shake [the doctors] out of it, at least for that visit.”
Ann surprised her doctors, and perhaps even her family, when she exceeded the predictions of how long she would live, but after years of fighting she finally succumbed to the disease with her family at her side.
When asked how he would advise other men on how to support the women in their lives who have breast cancer John offered this simple advice; “I would say the first thing you need to do, if she’s nearby, is hold her and comfort her, tell her how much you love her and then I would listen.”