Breast cancer recovery takes a toll

A pink Breast Cancer ribbon is displayed in Alice Rae in Tucson, Ariz.

One in eight.

According to the American Cancer Society, one in every eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer.  This statistic increases based on race, higher age and a family history of breast cancer. It’s the second leading cause of cancer death in women and steals the lives of about 40,920 every year.

Although death rates have dropped 39 percent since 1989, according to the American Cancer Society, the women who survive it are left with physical and emotional wounds that far outlast their last chemotherapy treatment.

Courses of treatment can leave women with no breast tissue post mastectomy, large scars and in some cases, a complete removal of any estrogen producers. Not only can breast cancer take away a woman’s chest, but it also can take away her womanhood.

Anita Kellman, founder of Beat Cancer Boot Camp on Saturday, March 28, 2018 at her camp in Tucson, Ariz. (Photo by: Sara Harelson)

Anita Kellman, founder of Beat Cancer Boot Camp in Tucson, has made it her mission to assist people in their physical and mental recovery.

“There’s that deer in the headlights look women get when they’re first diagnosed because it’s so shocking,” says Kellman.  “This group was formed to bring people together who have gone through the same thing and build that emotional support system.”

The boot camp meets every Saturday morning, and women spend the first hour of their weekend participating in Navy Seal-based workouts and cheering each other on.  Families and friends work out together, and you can feel the positive energy radiating off of the group.

“It’s a group of happy people going through unhappy times,” says Kellman.  “We’re here to support and inspire people and give strength to those who need it.”

Emotional support may be the greatest gift anyone can offer women going through and post-breast cancer treatment, when they might have  severe emotional issues related to sexuality, body image and loss of purpose as a woman.

The most known and physically apparent form of treatment is a mastectomy.  This is a radical form of treatment, but one that allows peace of mind for woman who feel checkups and constant worry are not worth keeping their breasts.

“There’s so much the doctors don’t tell you,” says breast cancer survivor Urania Ramsay after a bootcamp session.  “You’re left half a person, half a boob. I see it every time I look in the mirror.”

The survivors note that’s why programs like Beat Cancer Boot Camp are so vital.  They bring people together and if only for an hour, have the chance to join together in comraderie and forget about the scars, both visible and not.

Every woman’s journey is different.  The road to recovery is a long and winding road of ups and downs.  “Sometimes I feel okay,” says survivor Taryn Tewksbury. “It depends on the day.  I feel like my body left me down. It’s hard, and I just want to fight back.”

Women are fighting back in a plethora of ways.

Alice Rae Lingerie is helping women, one bra fitting at a time.  For more than 50 years, the store in Tucson has been assisting post-mastectomy women by finding the unique bra that fits their new body, giving them a surge of new confidence and hope for a more normal future.

An example of a breast insert women can be fitted with at Alice Rae in Tucson, Ariz. (Photo by: Sara Harelson)

“A lot of women come in not knowing about breast forms and bras and when we help them there’s happy tears,” says store manager Susan Black.  “They say thank you for helping make me feel like a woman again. It’s the best part of the job.”

These “solution divas” have a big pink cancer bow on display in the shop, showing solidarity with their customers. The walls are lined with lace bras and beautiful silk robes, teaching women that they are still sexy and can have pretty lingerie.

The treatments and screenings of breast cancer have improved dramatically over the years.  Identification of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations can alert women sometimes years before they are due to develop the beginning stages of their cancers.  According to breastcancer.org, having either of these genes increases risk of breast cancer to 80%. The discovery of these genes and what they are linked to did not happen until 1994 and 1995.  Once tested positive for one of the genes, women now have the treatment options to say goodbye to worry forever. Double mastectomies are sometimes used as radical treatment for women at risk of breast cancer, with the hope they can live long lives.

In 2018, women have a better chance now more than ever to beat breast cancer and more support in carrying the emotional and physical battle wounds. Breasts or not, these strong women are just that — women.

Sara Harelson is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona.  Contact her at saraharelson@email.arizona.edu.

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