Wake-Up Call Readers Share Stories About Watching Loved Ones Fight Breast Cancer

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Our community shares intimate stories about witnessing these heartbreaking battles firsthand.

Earlier this month, Katie Couric spoke about her recent battle with breast cancer in a heartfelt personal essay. While she does have a family history of cancer, breast cancer was a new chapter she hadn’t imagined facing. But the sad truth is, this disease is incredibly common, regardless of family history: 85 percent of the 264,000 American women diagnosed annually have no family history.

When we published Katie’s essay, we also asked for your survivor stories to show the diversity of breast cancer experiences: We received hundreds of harrowing yet inspiring replies. However, we were also aware that firsthand experiences are only part of the picture, because this disease can ravage entire communities. That’s why we compiled additional stories from readers who have helped their nearest and dearest grapple with diagnosis, treatment, and different outcomes. These stories are tragic, moving, and occasionally encouraging — and we hope you’ll be as touched by these as we were.

I just read Katie’s story about her breast cancer experience, and I’m thrilled she caught it early, but devastated to share that my mom did not.

October is a month full of juxtaposing feelings for me: On one hand, advocating for mammograms and preventative female care is something I’ll speak candidly and frankly about with any woman in my life. I feel so proud when someone tells me that they’ve made an appointment with their doctor, thanks to my urging. On the other hand, seeing pink-ribbon messages of hope and optimism around being a “warrior” causes me deep sadness, because my mom — and many others I’ve connected with in the metastatic breast cancer community — didn’t have a chance to win her battle against cancer. The worst part is that according to the nonprofit Metavivor, only 2-5 percent of all funds raised for the research of breast cancer are earmarked for metastatic breast cancer studies.

Metastatic breast cancer takes and takes and takes, and there’s no happy ending: A stage four diagnosis means you will die from the disease. The only comfort I take is in the clarity it gave my mom and me during her six-year journey through treatments. The ugly blessing was that this disease showed us how important it is to live a life you’re proud of, to be kind and present, and to show up for others even if your body or spirit is broken — because you’ll need them to show up for you in return. It gave us the opportunity to let no words go unsaid at the end, though as a young caregiver, I’ll always wonder what words we could have exchanged if cancer didn’t steal my best friend from me. It took my mom, Lynne D’Angelo, who died on June 18, 2020, the day before my 33rd birthday. More than two years later, tears still stream down my face as I type this. This is my breast cancer experience.

—Lauryn D’Angelo, from Pennsylvania

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at 73.

When they operated on her, they thought they took plenty of the necessary tissue. Sadly, her cancer was in 25 lymph nodes. She had a radical mastectomy and did chemo and radiation, but she didn’t let that stop her; she continued to garden and ski, and was zip-lining in Costa Rica on her 78th birthday. However, it returned and she passed away in November, two months before her 80th birthday in January.

In my yearly mammogram, a “suspicious area” was detected — I have very dense breasts — and now I go to the MD Anderson Cancer Center every six months. I get a mammogram once a year and a breast MRI six months later. I’m lucky to live in the Houston area where I can easily go to a great facility…but so many can’t.

—Kay Stacy from Texas

My mom was diagnosed in January 1974, when radical mastectomy was de rigueur. She was more receptive to radiation, so that — and tamoxifen — was her treatment plan.  Over the course of time, she developed cervical tumors that eroded cervical vertebrae and required her to wear a halo brace for 15 months. Toward the end of her life, there was an environmental cleanup in her neighborhood that caused a metastasis and required chemotherapy, which failed. We were lucky: We had her for 21 years after diagnosis. Being a stoic, she accepted her fate with characteristic aplomb. Her loss was devastating nonetheless.

—Sheryl Weintraub, from Pennsylvania

In August 2016, my daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer after her first mammogram. It was lobular and estrogen-related, and was in one breast — three tumors stacked on top of each other like a snowman, and one more on the side.

She decided to have a double mastectomy, since cancer often comes back in the other breast. My daughter’s been such a trooper through this journey: She did a TV interview about her cancer, and started a blog that helped many women decide to have mammograms. She and I walked in cancer relays, too.

She had a partial hysterectomy the same year she was diagnosed, so she would have to have a pill inserted into her stomach every month, plus the medicine she’ll be on for a total of 10 years. I know my daughter is super tough to go through all that; she’s a superhero to me. 

—Jean Cravens, from Missouri

Almost five years ago, my 27-year-old sister Maddie had a 10-month-old baby girl, and was working part-time as a cheerleading coach. After a fall broke her hip, she saw a doctor about surgery and got an X-ray. A few days later she received a devastating call: It was stage four triple negative metastatic breast cancer — the cancer that still kills women. 

Treatment began immediately. She also did genetic testing and her results showed that she was BRCA1 positive. I was turning 40 at the time. At the urging of my mom, I went to get tested and found out I was a previvor, with an 87 percent higher risk of developing the disease than average. 

In March 2020, as NYC hunkered down for the pandemic, I got on a plane to say goodbye to my sister, then 29. My mom rushed to bring her home so she could transition surrounded by family, rather than alone in a hospital room. 

She passed away in late March; her memorial was just last May. 

I’m alive because she gave me the gift of knowing. In March of 2021, I had preventative surgery to remove my fallopian tubes because of ovarian cancer risk. Just a few days later, I got a call similar to Katie’s: “We need to talk.”

I was in the 1 percent: Only 1 percent of women find cancer cells in their tubes before those cells become ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women. 

On October 1, 2021, I had a total hysterectomy. Just weeks earlier, I had married the love of my life on the anniversary of my sister’s first marriage. At first, I thought of changing the date — then I realized that this was how I could involve her. 

A year later I’m alive, but still cautious. Will I stay a previvor? Will my niece and nephews carry the gene? What about my cousins and my uncles? My aunt passed away in September 2019 from pancreatic cancer, which BRCA1 also increases the risk. 

I’m just one of the lucky ones…if luck means staring cancer down. 

—Monica Scantlebury, from New York

I lost my wife, Lora, to breast cancer two years ago. She had dense breasts, and in 2014, she had a clear mammogram. Despite feeling something suspiciousa couple of months later, she waited until we returned home from a trip to Australia to get another mammogram. She trusted the mammogram instead of acting on feeling that lump. Perhaps an ultrasound could have caught it sooner.

She endured chemo, surgery, and radiation in 2015. We enjoyed our retirement and spent time with our four grandchildren in Southern California, but in 2020, we discovered the cancer had come back in her liver. Therapy stunted the cancer, but it had too big of a head start. It took her five months later.

I’ve discussed her case with the well-known cancer specialist Dr. John West and have been supporting the Pink Journey Foundation and its website, which educates women and promotes the use of 3D mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRIs for early detection. Artificial intelligence is also assisting radiologists to find “the snowmen in a snowstorm,” aka lumps in dense breasts. Those, says Dr. West, are the biggest challenge.

—Steve Shryock, from California