"YOU HAVE BREAST CANCER."
No woman ever wants to hear those wordsor have one office visit change her life. Yet the 175,000 American women who'll face breast cancer this year will be forced to redefine their priorities and come to terms with the reality of lossthe loss of a breast, the loss of hair during treatment, and ultimately the loss of a sense of security.
But when breast cancer survivor Christine Clifford was first diagnosed in 1994, she refused to be crippled by fear. She renewed her commitment to God, researched her disease, and looked for the humor in her situation.
Amy Kuelbs, a four-time cancer survivor, ran a marathon four months after her treatment for the third bout. "I choose to have a positive attitude through this and continue to live a normal, active life," she says.
Sue Buchanan was given less than a year to live, but she didn't allow herself to dwell on her survival odds. "I refused to embrace those statistics," Sue says. That diagnosis was made 16 years agoand today Sue's alive and healthy.
Each of these three women have faced cancer with spunk, perseverance, prayer, humor, and especially hopeparticularly important considering the sobering statistics about breast cancer: One out of every 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. And every 3 minutes a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed.
Despite the odds, most women diagnosed with breast cancer survive the disease. If detected early, they have a 5-year survival rate of more than 95 percent. The problem is that fewer than a third of American women follow recommended guidelines for monthly self-examinations and mammograms (see page 65).
Through monthly self-exams, Christine, Amy, and Sue discovered the disease and responded quickly. And through their healing process, they each decided to do something inspiring, challenging, and significant: to use their circumstances to comfort and encourage others with cancer. Here are their stories.
Laughter IS Good Medicine
CHRISTINE CLIFFORD was a teen when her mother, Mickey, underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer and slipped into clinical depression. "Mom stopped washing her hair, brushing her teeth, shaving her legs," Christine recalls. "It was as though Mom crawled into bed and never came out again. After about a year, my father left my mom, and everything in my life changed forever."
For more than 20 years, Christine prayed that no matter what happened in her life, she'd never experience breast cancer.
By the end of her 40th year, everything in her life was going beautifully. Christine and her husband, John, were approaching their 20th wedding anniversary. They had 2 active boys: Tim, 10, and Brooks, 8. And she was savoring her success as senior executive vice president of a large international marketing company. "I was on top of the world," Christine says.
But in November 1994, during a routine breast self-examination, Christine found a lump. She immediately went to two different radiologists who said they couldn't even feel the lump. But Christine knew something was wrong when the lump started to protrude from her breast. Finally she convinced a third physician to do a needle biopsy, a procedure in which tissue samples are taken from the breast to determine if cancer cells are present. Four days later, the diagnosis was cancer; of the four stages of cancer, she had a stage 3 tumor that had invaded her chest wall. On New Year's Eve, Christine had a lumpectomy and the next 10 months were filled with aggressive chemotherapy, combined with 33 days of radiation.
"When I was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately thought I'd be depressed, my husband would leave me, and I'd die," admits Christine. "I worried, What if I only live another year? Three years? Five years?"
Coming face-to-face with her greatest fear, Christine deliberately chose a different path than her mother. She leaned on her faith, family, and friends, and decided she'd do everything possible to live.
On December 26, Christine and John told their boys about her disease. John started by reminding them of their blessings. "Aren't we a fortunate family? Wasn't our Christmas great?" The kids heartily agreed. "Well, sometimes along with the good things, bad things happen." Then John explained about Christine's disease and that her treatment could cause her hair to fall out. Her eldest son, Tim, exclaimed, "Cool, Mom! Now you'll look like Captain Picard on Star Trek!" Christine started to laugh, then realized that was the first time in eight days she'd done so. "It felt great! My family allowed humor to come back into my life. And I picked it up and ran with it!"
About four weeks after her diagnosis, Christine awoke in the middle of the night and began sketching cartoons portraying her cancer experiences. At first she assumed they were just therapeutic. Then she realized she could send them as thank-yous. If someone sent her flowers, she'd send them a card with a cartoon of a flower delivery man at the door and her son yelling, "Mom, more flowers for your breast!" As she sent these cartoons, she made a profound discovery: "When people hear you have cancer, their reaction is to pull away. Because they don't know what to sayand they don't want to say the wrong thingthey end up saying nothing. But the humor of my cartoons put people at ease and opened the door to the relationships I so desperately needed."
With that discovery, Christine's marketing savvy kicked in. "In all the months I went through my treatments," Christine recalls, "no one ever gave me anything that made me laugh!" So she found a publisher for her story and cartoons called Not Now, I'm Having a No Hair Day. Then she expanded the idea to include cartoons on T-shirts and mugs. In May 1995, Christine birthed The Cancer Club, an organization that produces humorous, helpful products for cancer patients and their families. Her first product, an exercise video for women recovering from breast cancer surgery, sold 30,000 copies. Next was a humorous quarterly newsletter: "I knew how important it was for me as a patient to receive mail. I lived for going to the mailbox!"
In 1997, Christine quit her marketing job and started working for The Cancer Club full-time. She's kept a hectic schedule since: writing, speaking, traveling, and raising funds to fight breast cancer. Last year, with the help of local and national celebrities, she raised $100,000 in the "Christine Clifford Celebrity Golf Invitational." This September she's hoping to raise $150,000 at the second annual golf event.
"I wouldn't wish cancer on my worst enemy," Christine says, "But God allowed me this experience so I could, in turn, help others."
For more information, contact Christine at The Cancer Club, 6533 Limerick Drive, Edina, MN 55439; 1-612-944-0639; 1-800-586-9062; www.cancerclub.com. Special thanks to Lenae Bulthuis and Diane Zuidema for alerting us to this wonderful woman.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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