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Survivor addresses ignorance of 'It's only breast cancer'


Kathleen E. Michienzi, left, program coordinator for the ECMC Foundation "mobile mammography coach," works on the coach with mammographer Elaine Budelewski, right, and navigator Rosalind Rice, who is not pictured, among others. (Charles Lewis/Buffalo News)


By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor

While I interviewed Kathleen E. Michienzi for today’s “In the field” story, I was reminded of a sign I saw outside the Spafford fire station in suburban Syracuse about 15 years ago.

It read: “Minor surgery is what happens to somebody else.”

Women, including Michienzi, who have lived through breast cancer can more than relate, particularly when they hear this comment when someone first learns about somebody else who recently got diagnosed:

“It’s only breast cancer.”

Michienzi, a breast cancer survivor who manages the ECMC Foundation mobile mammography bus, has endured 14 surgeries since she was diagnosed a decade ago. Most were from complications of breast reconstruction.

One of her best friends, diagnosed about the same time, died five years ago, leaving behind a husband and two children.

“It gets me crazy when people say, ‘Oh it’s only breast cancer, they’ll cut off your breast and you’ll be fine,’” Michienzi said. “No, you have no idea what people with breast cancer go through...

“I’ve been in health care my whole (adult) life,” she said. “My sister had hodgkin’s disease at 19. My grandfather had colon cancer. So I was familiar with cancer, but I have to say, until it happened to me, I had no clue.”

Her chemotherapy came with every side-effect possible. She had a hard time getting up and using the bathroom after surgery and some treatments. She had eye problems.

She got through it all with support from colleagues, family and friends, but the hardest parts of her struggle waxed and waned for about two years.

If it’s caught early enough, breast cancer it is curable, said Michienzi (pronounced Mick-en-zie).

That’s why October – National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – is a good time for many women to schedule a mammography appointment, and learn how best to perform breast self-exams.

“Unfortunately,” said Michienzi, “it’s not always detected early.”

Even when it is, people need to reconsider saying to someone, ‘Oh, you just have stage one breast cancer,” Michienzi said, “because to that person, it’s cancer.”

In the end, that woman likely will need a lumpectomy and follow-up care “but you don’t know that,” she said.

For some, there’s also the prospect of breast removal, followed by radiation, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery.

“You don’t know until you’ve already made the decision to have the surgery and you’re waiting for your surgical pathology report and going in to sit with that doctor,” Michienzi said. “You’re scared. It’s hard.

“When I was first diagnosed, what I needed to get under control is understanding that people don’t understand.”

She urged those diagnosed  not to get hurt or angry by what people say.

“Until you’ve been in that situation, you really don’t know.”

Folks like me get it, too, at least to a very meaningful extent.

My mom, the rock of my life, died after a six-year battle with breast cancer on Thanksgiving Day 1985, four days after my 25th birthday. She'd ignored for several months a small lump she'd detected in her right breast, and was in stage four by the time she went in for a check-up in 1979.

Doctors gave her six months to live. She beat that prediction by 10 times, largely because of her sheer will.

That time was precious to our family, but my brother and I have missed her now for more than a quarter century. She never saw us thrive in our professional lives. Or get married. Or her grandchildren.

So consider this my personal plea to you ladies out there: Talk to your doctor, or get one if you don't have one, and figure out if you should schedule a mammogram – because "only breast cancer" has the potential to cost you, your family and your friends very dearly.


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About The Refresh Buffalo Blog

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered various topics in his quarter-century as a journalist in South Florida, Syracuse and Buffalo. He is aiming to pass along what he is learning these days about health, fitness, nutrition and family life.

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