What Breast Cancer Really Looks Like

Cancer affects all of us, whether you’re a daughter, mother, sister, friend, coworker, doctor, or patient.

Cancer does not discriminate between the rich or poor, man or woman, young or old.

Cancer affects all of us, each and every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

Do you know someone with cancer? Chances are, you do. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.7 million people find out each year around the world that they have cancer, and 7.6 million people die from cancer.

A beautiful friend of my mother’s found out that she had breast cancer when she was pregnant with her third daughter. While performing a self-breast exam, Sara Erzen, 35, found a lump in her breast. When approaching her doctors in Lansing, she was told not to worry about it, because dense breast tissue is normal during pregnancy. Sara was told to go home and take care of herself, and to worry more about her pregnancy and less about the lumps. The pain was excruciating to the point that she couldn’t sleep at night without the pressure of a hot pack on the area. Sara describes the pain as, “It felt like something was growing like ivy around the nerve endings in my chest wall, shoulder and down my arm.” She went back to her doctor during her 21st week of pregnancy for a second time; her gut feeling was telling her that something was not right. At this visit, she was referred to a breast surgeon, and the lump she was feeling before was now the size of a ping-pong ball with two more masses found under her left breast. Sara had a biopsy immediately that day, and found out just the next day that her breast cancer was stage
three and had spread to her lymph nodes.

Sara’s official cancer diagnosis: Grade three invasive ductal carcinoma, positive metastatic cells, positive lymph nodes, two tumors. Cancer. Breast cancer.

“We offered Sara the option of having the chemotherapy, delaying the surgery so that she might, at some stage like now, be a candidate for having breast-conserving surgery, meaning we don’t have to remove the breast. If we can do that, that’s what we would hope for,” says Dr. David Nathanson, the Director of Breast Care at Henry Ford Hospital. Because of her pregnancy, Dr. Nathanson recommended no surgery, chemotherapy or radiation be performed in the first trimester because of the risk to Sara’s unborn baby. Once it was safe, Sara had four successful rounds of chemo without any trauma to the baby while pregnant.

Sara and James were blessed with Adeline Faith on March 6. After the birth, Sara underwent intense surgery, extensive chemotherapy, and radiation. This treatment also included the unilateral mastectomy that removed Sara’s left breast. Now, Sara is living with the side effects of her disease, and living without many of her cancer-stricken friends who happened to not be as lucky as her.

Take a look. This is breast cancer. This is what breast cancer looks like, and this is what breast cancer really is. This is real life. Let me show you my friend, Sara:

Put as much care into your breasts, as you do your brows and your hair–if not, you could end up losing all three.” –Sara Erzen

When you think of Susan G. Komen, you probably think of pink ribbons and the annual “Race for the Cure” event that happens in big cities. Or you might think of the 5,458,848 things that you’ll see this October with that pink ribbon on it saying, “buy this and support Susan G. Komen.” Susan Komen was a real woman who passed away from breast cancer in 1980 at the young age of 36. According to current research and findings, metastatic breast cancer is the only type of breast cancer that kills. Did you know that only 7 percent of Susan G. Komen’s non-administrative funds went to metastatic research last year? This is the very cancer that killed their namesake, and the very cancer that all of your pink purchases are NOT supporting.

October is absolutely not an advertising tactic for the sake of women who are suffering, dying, and losing everything they love at the cost of this horrible illness. Somewhere along the journey that Sara went through, among all of her treatments and surgeries, seeing the sadness in the eyes of her daughters, hearing her personal testimony of fear when attending any doctor’s appointments, seeing my mom in empathetic hurt and pain for one of her friends, and watching this beautiful woman going through so much pain…along all of this, all of this pink marketing became personal. Every single pink ribbon became personal to me. And when it became personal to me, it was tenfold for Sara and her family. The pink ribbon is not cute and fashionable, it represents a real disease.

“Pinktober” is the term that pro-breast cancer awareness companies use to promote the color pink and the disease of breast cancer for the increase of profit and revenue. Seeing all of these products and the bright color spreading so quickly, I began to question how much of the pink money was going to research to save the lives of cancer sufferers. As I expected, it is not much. Performing a quick search on the Internet showed several companies that make many different types of pink products for sale, some for as little as 45 cents! Most of these sites contain professional commentary from the president of the company or organization explaining that the money goes to breast cancer awareness and activism. It is personally hard to believe that every single one of these companies is donating their honest amounts to the cause, because the rates of survival are not changing. We have become absolutely pink-washed.

In December 2013, shortly after diagnosis, after beginning treatment at Henry Ford, Sara’s story had quickly spread. Just two weeks after her first chemo, she was contacted by the hospital philanthropy department. Being Michiganders, the Detroit Lions sponsor the Game on Cancer, which personally touched Sara and her family. The Erzen family was personally treated by Matthew Stafford and his wife Kelly to an incredible Christmas, providing presents, gas cards, gift cards, and a personal sit-down meal with them. The Staffords, partnering up directly with Henry Ford hospital in Detroit where Sara received cancer treatment, did this all out of their own means and good will. It is small campaigns like this that make a difference, and prove that awareness and action are very different. While the Staffords took it upon themselves to make action out of this event, the Erzen family was left with memories that touched their family for a lifetime.

Sara posted a status on Facebook that really sparked my attention last week. She said, “Instead of buying crap pink ribbon potato chips, contact the American Cancer Society. Find a family you can help, or the philanthropy department of your nearest hospital, see who you can help with a gas card or two. If you can, even if it’s a minimal amount, donate to these people you know, who are shamelessly posting GoFundMe links, because it’s their only hope. I encourage you to think before you pink, and also, to acknowledge those around you, who are literally fighting tooth and nail to survive.” The best medical treatment is often denied to many due to money and finances, and when it is offered, it most commonly requires expensive travel, lodging, and the expenses that go along with that. When Sara was in treatment for her breast cancer, the Erzen’s put over 12,000 miles on their vehicle while she was in treatment at Josephine Ford Cancer Institute.

Put yourself in the shoes of this woman, and try to imagine a cancer diagnosis during your fifth month of pregnancy. Please think about the suffering that her and her family went through before you buy a cute pink product at the store. Sara hasn’t seen a penny of that money towards her treatment, her research, her cause, or her stance. Instead, she has watched friend after friend have their life taken due to this disease, watched her family suffer in sadness at the potential thought of losing their mother, wife, daughter, and friend, and is still living with the effects of her diagnosis and her treatment today. It isn’t sexy to have a breast removed as a young mother. It isn’t beautiful and glorious to lose a head of hair as a successful woman. And it isn’t fun to get the attention over this disease, it’s actually devastating and horribly post-traumatic.

Breast Cancer Action urges consumers to ask themselves these important questions before making a purchase: How much money from pink products is going to any effective programs that are actively trying to fight breast cancer? What are those programs doing with the money? And is there a cap on the amount of money that companies donate? In other words, are sales benefiting women’s health after a company’s self-imposed donation threshold has been met?

Sara’s story has been featured on the Today Show, featured in books, and has gone viral across the Internet and has been featured on news outlets across the country. Personally, Sara is a hero to me and my best example of a strong woman who survived and continues to make a positive change in the world.

If you are interested in helping Sara with her philanthropic efforts, please click on this link and help us Rise Above the Ribbon this month of Breast Cancer Awareness. Don’t pink for Sara, but consider making a donation to Breast Cancer Action in her honor instead of buying pink ribbon products. Schedule your mammogram this month, become more diligent with your self-breast exams, and take affirmative action by DOING something to change our breast cancer statistics, instead of just buying yogurt with a pink lid.

Help us turn Breast Cancer Awareness Month into Breast Cancer Action Month!


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