Awareness campaign gives breast cancer patients chance to say 'I'm a survivor'

The scars keep her recollections vivid.

Lynn Alexander can't look at her bare breasts in the mirror without remembering why they're not "real." A surgeon removed both of Alexander's cancer-riddled breasts last November and replaced them with implants.

She thought they'd be more like her own breasts -- only perkier.

"And they ARE perky. I don't have to wear a bra because they're not going anywhere. But they're also hard as rocks," said Alexander, a 40-year-old registered nurse who works at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. "You look at yourself in the mirror every day, and you're like 'Oh my gosh.' It's a little bit of a reminder every morning."

But it's also evidence that she's still alive.

She and a handful of other Lawrence breast cancer survivors are celebrating their good fortune and helping spread knowledge about the disease and the benefits of early detection during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Alexander is one of 12 survivors -- including one man -- taking part in an awareness campaign sponsored by Breast Cancer Action and Health Care Access, a clinic serving Douglas County's low-income and uninsured.

Their shadowed portraits will be posted, along with clues to their identity, in several Lawrence businesses beginning Monday. Fully lighted portraits will be revealed and matched up with survivor profiles Oct. 9.

"I really liked the idea because these are not nameless people. These are real people that you've probably seen at the store or at church, somebody you could put a face to the statistics," said Judy Hollingshead, president of Breast Cancer Action and a 17-year survivor of breast cancer.

The disease afflicts one in eight women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. It's second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among American women. Men are at risk as well. Though debate persists about the effectiveness of different screening techniques, there's no disputing that early detection is the best protection against the disease.

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Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Photographer Jim Sovanski shoots a picture of Lynn Alexander, a breast cancer survivor from Lawrence, at Health Care Access, 1920 Moodie Road. Alexander, who finished radiation therapy in February, is one of 12 local breast cancer survivors whose portraits and personal stories will be displayed in several local businesses during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Sovanski, of Topeka, shot photos of the survivors earlier this month.

Losses and gains

Alexander credits early detection and prompt treatment to her survival.

She found a lump in April 2002 as she prepared to take a shower. Her physician brother-in-law told her it could be a cyst, but in the back of her mind, Alexander says, she knew it was cancer. A doctor confirmed her suspicion soon thereafter and immediately started her on chemotherapy.

In November, Alexander underwent a bilateral mastectomy and hysterectomy. Ovarian cancer recently had been diagnosed in her mother, and the women discovered they carried a gene that predisposes them to cancer.

"I already had two kids and would have liked to have more, but this was somebody telling me, 'OK, no more for you,'" Alexander said.

She followed up the surgeries with radiation treatments and has been cancer free since February. Her prognosis?

"That's why we're going to Kansas City to see the doctor," Alexander said earlier this week. "I just had an MRI. They follow up every three months, and so far everything looks good."

Day-to-day life is getting easier, too.

"As it gets further and further out, it's not as awful," Alexander said. "I don't wake up in the morning and think, 'Oh my God, I have breast cancer.' And I don't lay in bed at night and think I'm going to die."

She hopes her story and the awareness campaign will convince other women that it's important to be in tune with their bodies and that breast cancer isn't always a death sentence.

"I've met so many people that I work with at the hospital that have been through this," Alexander said, "They're five years, 10 years out, and they're doing great. So that's encouraging."

Sign of success

Breast cancer doesn't discriminate. Although people with family histories are at greater risk, just having breasts makes all women targets. And 1 percent of all breast cancers occur in men.

The Lawrence awareness campaign represents a fairly wide cross-section of survivors. They range in age from mid-30s to 83. They work in medicine, insurance, education, libraries, marketing and optical labs. Several are retired.

Though their stories are aimed at heightening awareness communitywide, campaign organizers hope their messages specifically reach potential Health Care Access clients. The clinic coordinates a voucher program that allows women to get free mammograms at LMH. Last year, it distributed about 130 vouchers, said clinic director Nikki King. She projects it will have given out 150 by the end of this year.

During the past year, about 30 of those women have been sent on for further biopsies, and a few ended up with a breast cancer diagnosis.

That's a sign of success, King said.

"Otherwise these women are going without care and could possibly die much younger than they need to because they're not getting regular checkups and catching this at an age where it can be resolved," she said.

Health Care Access has passed out educational materials in the past, but this is the first year the 14-year-old clinic has mounted a full campaign to promote breast cancer awareness.

"It puts real faces from our community out front to say this is a serious disease," she said. "This is a real disease, killing real people, and it is very preventable."

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