May 13th, 2015 by Charlie Blackburn | NAACCReview Home Leave a comment
Laurie Becklund: Treat me like a statistic and save my life

Laurie Becklund: ‘Treat me like a statistic and save my life.’

I am dying, literally, at my home in Hollywood, of metastatic breast cancer, the only kind of breast cancer that kills. For six years I’ve known I was going to die. I just didn’t know when.

Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, a new, deadly diagnosis gave me a deadline. No doctor would promise me I’d make it to 2015.

Promise me, I told my friends and family, that you’ll never say that I died after “fighting a courageous battle with breast cancer.” This tired, trite line dishonors the dead and the dying by suggesting that we, the victims, are responsible for our deaths or that the fight we were in was ever fair.

Promise me you’ll never wear a pink ribbon in my name or drop a dollar into a bucket that goes to breast cancer “awareness” for “early detection for a cure,” the mantra of fund-raising juggernaut Susan G. Komen, which has propagated a distorted message about breast cancer and how to “cure” it.

I’m proof that early detection doesn’t cure cancer. I had more than 20 mammograms, and none of them caught my disease. In fact, we now have significant studies showing that routine mammogram screening, which may result in misdiagnoses, unnecessary treatment and radiation overexposure, can harm more people than it helps.

In 1996, during a self-exam, I found a peanut-sized lump in one breast that turned out to be stage one breast cancer. I had the “best,” most common, kind of breast cancer, found it early, got a lumpectomy and short dose of radiation. Five years out, my doctor told me there was little chance of recurrence and said, “Have a great life!”

You can imagine my shock when, 13 years after my initial diagnosis, I was in gridlock on the Harbor Freeway and got a call from my doctor with the results of a PET scan ordered after routine blood labs. “Maybe you should pull over,” he said.

Half an hour later, in an elementary school parking lot, I learned the scans revealed stage four breast cancer in my bones, liver, lungs and brain: a death sentence with an average life expectancy of three years.

I demanded the truth, always, from my doctors. I was a reporter who needed facts to plan whatever life I had left. I would not live in denial. But I was too scared, too private to tell anyone except my husband, my daughter and three friends. My very cells suddenly became my most intimate secrets.

Read Full Article (Excerpt of Article from a Op-Ed piece published in the LA Times by Laurie Becklund)

Comments by:
John W. Morgan, DrPH, CPH, Professor of Epidemiology, Loma Linda University School of Public Health Epidemiologist, Regions 4, 5, 7 & 10 of the Cancer Registry of Greater California (NAACCR Committee Member)

With great sadness, I read the autobiographic account of Laurie Becklund’s experience with breast cancer, including the heartbreaking conclusion. My sadness stems from the tragedy of her loss and because her story neglects to acknowledge successes in the “war on cancer” that are too numerous to list here. Since mammographic screening for breast cancer became available in the U.S. during the middle 1980s, age-adjusted risk of death for this disease has shown a steady decline. Unfortunately, this success, which has extended lives for tens of thousands of women, cannot guarantee equal benefits for all. Using population-based cancer registry data, researchers, cancer registrars and numerous other health professionals have dedicated their lives to cancer control and prevention research that has improved early detection, targeted therapies and quality of life among patients diagnosed with cancer.

During my youth, I have vivid memories of a classmate diagnosed with, what I know today was, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). Like virtually all children with ALL at that time, she quickly succumbed to the ravages of the cancer. This was my first encounter with the death of a child that I knew and I recall the fear that affected every child in our school as we learned that there was no cure for ALL, the most common childhood cancer.

Thanks to discoveries made in cancer research, the story of childhood cancer has a different ending for most afflicted children today. Currently, more than 90% of children diagnosed with ALL achieve permanent remissions from their cancer, with most having normal life expectancies. Whether children afflicted with cancer, their doctors or researchers receive credit for these victories is unimportant to me. What is of supreme importance is the understanding that each victory in the war on cancer is personal and each is dependent upon research discoveries that require high quality cancer surveillance data and funding.

Today, an average of one in eight women will have a breast cancer diagnosis during her lifetime. While this number seems startling, research that improves detection of earlier stage cancer and treatment has elevated the 5-year relative survival for breast cancer to more than 89%. I do not know whether medical progress extended or improved the quality of life for Laurie Becklund, although I am consoled in the understanding that ongoing research will allow us to incrementally move closer to her hope for the cure that she so much deserved.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and may not represent the official positions of NAACCR.

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