It’s hard to find a woman who hasn’t been touched, at least tangentially, by breast cancer. Excluding skin cancer, it is the most common cancer among U.S. women—accounting for 29 percent of newly diagnosed cancers each year. Only lung cancer causes more cancer deaths in women.
My paternal grandmother was a breast cancer survivor, and I inherited her BRCA2 gene mutation, which gives me a 45 percent chance of developing breast cancer over my lifetime. Since age 27, I have undergone screening every six months, a heart-stopping affair in which I worry and wonder: “Will this be it? Is it coming now? How will this impact my son?”
So far—knock on wood—the answer has always been: “Not today. Not yet. ” But countless women are not so lucky, and they need our love and support not just during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but every day.
What can you do to help the women you know living with breast cancer? Parents talked to Rebecca Weiss, a breast cancer survivor and mother of two, about her battle and the gestures that made the biggest difference. Rebecca founded Bob’s Boxes, a nonprofit that sends post-mastectomy care packages to breast cancer patients, and she serves as a Model of Courage for Ford Motor Company’s breast cancer awareness initiative and fundraising campaign, Warriors in Pink. Proceeds from sales of the tunic she is wearing in the photo above will help women living with breast cancer experience #moregooddays via house cleaning services, meal delivery, and more.
Parents: Tell us a bit about how you came to be diagnosed.
Rebecca Weiss: I was 43. It was May of 2014, and I was working full time and had two little kids, Valerie, then 4, and Franklin, then 6. We were on vacation, and I was rinsing off from the beach, and I felt a lump. I hate to say it, but I waited a couple of months before feeling it again and calling my gynecologist. Like many moms, I put myself on the bottom of the priority list. My doctor sent me for a mammogram, and I was there for hours. They did one and then they did another and then an ultrasound and a biopsy. By the end of that I knew something was wrong. Later that week, when my doctor gave my husband and me the official results, it was surreal. It was like everything being said made no sense.
You found out later that you had a BRCA1 gene mutation, which heightens your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Did you have any inkling that that might be the case?
I didn’t know that I had it. I inherited it from my father, and he had had prostate cancer, but that’s so common in the general male population that it doesn’t automatically signal the BRCA mutation. My father’s mother died in the 1960s of what they called stomach cancer. I think we could now guess that she actually had ovarian cancer.
What was your treatment like?
It turned out that the cancer was advanced, so we started right away. I responded very well to chemotherapy—eight rounds over 16 weeks. They did it every other week, so I’d be on the couch for a week, and then back at work the next. By the time I had my double mastectomy, the tumor had shrunk to one centimeter, and they were able to get clean margins, and remove all of the lymph nodes remaining on the cancerous side. That was followed by a full course of radiation, which I finished January 2, 2015. Aside from one day, I got to start 2015 cancer free.
How did your children cope while you were in treatment?
Though my husband, Mike, works from home and already bore the brunt of childcare duties, there were still a lot of interruptions in our routine. But like anything, the kids got used to it. They saw that I would have a couple of bad days, but then I would be back on my feet and going to work and coming to school events like I always did. We explained to them that Mommy is seeing a very good doctor who is giving her very strong medicine, and the medicine will make her hair fall out, but it’ll grow back. They were very empathetic.
The surgery was by far the most arduous time. I had to stay in the hospital a few nights and once I was home, I still had to deal with a brutal recovery. The kids would come up and see me in the bedroom, but for the most part, we kept them away. I’m so thankful I had friends who wanted to help then.
That brings us to Ford Warriors in Pink, which fundraises to bring #moregooddays to breast cancer survivors across the country. What allowed you to have more good days while you were in treatment?
There were a ton of gestures from other people that made a huge impact and helped my kids continue to have a kid life, and not be sucked up into cancer life. In addition to bringing a meal or taking the kids to the movies, I asked each of my friends to do something that fit with who they were. I have a friend who is an amazing knitter, and she knit me a couple of really cute knit caps. I have a friend who’s a project manager, and she helped me figure out all of the billing and the insurance. On those days when I was on the couch, to get a text from a coworker, a friend, an aunt, somebody overseas, that just said, “I love you, I know this is hard, but I’m supporting you, I’m praying for you,” it really did brighten my day.
What role does cancer play in your life today?
I think there’s a little-known conclusion that I’ve found only other cancer survivors understand, which is that—especially when you have kids—you’re just so driven. You decide: I’m going to be the person I was before. I’m going to persevere. And so I’ll take the chemo, and I’ll have that surgery, and I’ll go to radiation. And then it ends, and you’re like, What am I doing today to stop or kill the cancer? That is really when it hits you. Now you’re just hoping it doesn’t come back. Right when my treatment ended is when my spirits were the lowest. But then things got better.
I left my job of 12 years because I had always wanted to work for a nonprofit. Cancer helped me decide to finally do what I wanted to do. I work fewer hours now, and I don’t miss any soccer games or PTA meetings. We as a family spend a lot more time doing things that we love. My husband and I finally went on our honeymoon 13 years after we got married. I think in some ways I’m a completely different person after cancer. This past year has been one of the best years of my life.
Julia Edelsten is Senior Health Editor at Parents and a mom of one.