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Surviving, and Thriving, After Breast Cancer

Forty-thousand women are expected to die this year from breast cancer.But thanks to early detection, that’s just a fraction of the number of women who will be diagnosed with it.  Most will survive.  October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and WMRA's Luanne Austin spoke with two women who have lived through breast cancer.

“You have breast cancer.” These are some of the most frightening words a woman can hear. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight U.S. women—a little more than 12%—will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Jean Litten of Harrisonburg was one of those women. Eight years ago, at age  70, she went for her annual mammogram.

JEAN LITTEN:  And I just felt there was something wrong. I mean, I just sensed there was something wrong. And sure enough, they called and said they found something.  

Jean opted to have a lumpectomy, a surgery that involves removing the tumor and some surrounding tissue, followed by radiation. Today, she’s fully recovered. However, each woman’s experience with breast cancer is different. At age 40, Karen Zirk, also of Harrisonburg, found a small lump on her breast in March of 2013.   

KAREN ZIRK:  I found a small lump on my right side, um, breast, um, and I just kind of put it off, going to get it checked.

Two months later, a biopsy revealed the lump… was cancerous. In June, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy during which both her breasts were removed.

ZIRK:  And they removed eight lymph nodes on my right side and two on my left and of the eight they removed on my right side, two or three had cancer cells in them and the tissue surrounding the lymph nodes had cancer in it, so that made my case just a little more complicated than we had anticipated.

In the following months, Karen underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, followed by reconstruction procedures. Her last surgery was performed in September of 2014. Though Karen’s experience has been difficult, her prognosis is good. However, not everyone is so fortunate, including a friend of Jean Litten’s. 

LITTEN:  It so happened, though, that she had the lumpectomy, she went to a mastectomy, it went through her body and she’s gone. So, I feel grateful.  

The American Cancer Society recommends that women of all ages do a monthly self-exam and that women over 40 get an annual mammogram.

ZIRK:  Early detection is the key. And if you put it off, I can tell you, the mammogram is a whole lot easier than chemo, it’s a whole lot easier than radiation, it’s a whole lot easier than surgery.

LITTEN:  What if I hadn’t had one, where would I be? I might not be here.

Luanne Austin was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.