October has passed. It will be another year before our football games are rife with men wearing pink—unless you’re Pittsburgh Steeler DeAngelo Williams who is so committed to raising breast cancer awareness that he dyed his long, dreadlocked hair fuchsia. Once again a pink donut simply means strawberry frosting; no statement, no proceeds going to Susan G. Komen.
Yet breast cancer knows no season. Just ask Williams. His petition to the National Football League to wear pink all season was denied, but the memory of losing his mother and four aunts to breast cancer is something he carries forever.
Here to remind us that breast self-exams, mammograms and general breast cancer awareness are best kept in mind year-round are three women who survived the disease—on their own terms. It is a feat they celebrate.
Every. Single. Day.
Losing the hair on her head did not phase Kathy Risko. She knew the chemo would take that kind of toll.
“But when I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, that’s when I felt I truly looked sick,” said Risko, chief external affairs officer with nonprofit Adagio Health. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2014, at age 39, after discovering a lump in her right breast. “Losing defining pieces of your face, it’s like shit, I am really sick. I am really sick.”
Throughout her thirties, Risko asked her insurance company to cover mammograms, but she was denied. Her mother had survived a post-menopausal form of the disease, and Risko was too young to be considered high-risk. When she discovered the lump in the shower that spring day, she was struck by how big it felt, seemingly out of nowhere.
The tumor would measure 3.2 centimeters, particularly large. Risko underwent months of chemo prior to surgery in the hopes of shrinking the tumor. She brought a different friend to each hours-long treatment—making it an opportunity to deepen relationships, have conversations she might never have without that quiet, uninterrupted time.
The tumor shrank. But Risko experienced such intense side effects she opted to cut chemo short—a personal decision she discussed at length with her physician. The week before Thanksgiving last year she decided she could no longer tolerate the muscle, joint and bone pain that even oxycodone would not alleviate. “It’s my body, I’m tired of this,” Risko announced. “All the nurses kind of looked at me like I was crazy.”
Prior to her mastectomy in February, Risko and her husband took a much-needed trip to Cancun. “I want to take my boob on this last vacation,” Risko told her husband. “He’d laugh back at me and say you really shouldn’t call me a boob.”
Her mastectomy was successful. Following what she describes as a “really horrid baby bird phase,” her hair grew back. When she looks at her body now she sees the healed wound where her chemo port was inserted. She sees the same right nipple she’d always had, though less sensitive, but a new bellybutton. She sees strength.
“I have scars, but frankly, I worked really hard to get those scars. I don’t feel too bad about them at all. It’s just part of who I am now.”
Risko remains cancer free, but she found two lumps in October, this time in her left breast, and is scheduled for a preemptive mastectomy next year. Though they proved benign, it was doubly frustrating finding the lumps during breast cancer awareness month—scheduling mammograms in October can be particularly challenging. The Pittsburgher had to drive to Cranberry twice in one week to assure she’d have the scan right away.
If folks maintained an awareness of breast health year-round, these sorts of backlogs would be less likely.
“Feel your boobies all the time, not just October and May,” Risko said, when many of the Susan G. Komen Races for the Cure take place. “You can get cancer anytime.”
At age 32, Talia Piazza says she spends entirely too much money on concert tickets and traveling to shows. Most would argue she also knows entirely too much about breast cancer.
Though she had no family history of the disease, she is already a two-time breast cancer survivor, and terms like “neoadjuvant chemotherapy” roll off her tongue far too readily.
Piazza, program manager and community resources and communications officer for nonprofit Neighborhood Allies, found the lump in her breast when she was 25, just before Christmas 2009. At her first mammogram, Piazza knew something was up when the nursing staff suddenly seemed overly interested in how she was doing, if someone was there with her. When the doctor finally came into the room, she shared her concerns that Piazza had breast cancer.
“At that point it was like I wasn’t really living. I was watching a movie,” Piazza recalls.
That same day she had biopsies taken. The nurse who sat through the painful procedure with her offered some advice: “She said: ‘You know, when this is over, go have one too many cocktails.’”
“Even though too many cocktails sounded like a grand idea, I didn’t have an appetite for anything after the news I got that day,” she remembers.
It was January 2nd before Piazza was formally diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, and in that time she tried not to Google too much. “The worst part of the whole cancer experience—that time period when you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
What happened next was chemo, six rounds. After her large tumor was shrunk, radiation and a lumpectomy were recommended by her doctors, but that didn’t sit right with Piazza. When she learned a double mastectomy would increase her odds of survival by a few percentage points, it mattered, and she opted to have both breasts removed and reconstructed. She took a medical leave of absence and had to move home with her parents to recover from the major surgery.
For nearly five years, Piazza was cancer free. She even established her own catering company, Baked PGH, creating delectable desserts for showers, parties and all things celebratory. But in March 2013 she was given a recurrence diagnosis. Another major surgery was required in order to extract the string of affected lymph nodes. Eight rounds of chemo and 37 rounds of radiation followed.
During her treatment, Piazza immersed herself in music. She painted and took walks. She refused to shut down.
“Yeah, chemo sucks, but I just chose to focus on other things.” She baked cupcakes—even though she had no appetite.
Following the second diagnosis, Piazza has been in a state of medically-induced menopause in an effort to sabotage the efforts of her estrogen-fed cancer. She knows she’ll have to employ alternative methods if she wants to have children someday. She is very matter-of-fact in discussing the ways cancer has affected her life, neither sentimentalizing her experience nor allowing resentment (however reasonable that would be) to poison her perspective. She loves taking her dog to the park, lives on Mt. Washington, and still revels in her baking “side hustle.”
Her mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, and it is clear to Piazza how to proceed.
“My mom was my rock when I was going through cancer, and I want to be that for her.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Gladys Bettis is thrilled about her next birthday—the big 7-0. “I can’t wait,” she exclaimed recently. After losing both parents when they were just 53 years old, Bettis, mother to famed retired Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis, has savored every moment she’s been given. “Each year that I get older it’s such a blessing to me.”
Battling breast cancer last year only strengthened her perspective. She had been receiving routine mammograms for years, which made it quite a surprise that the tumor found in her breast was already 2.5 centimeters. Six rounds each of chemotherapy and radiation, followed by a lumpectomy, and Bettis, was pronounced cancer free in May.
But it was not so simple as that in practice.
“That radiation was a bear,” Bettis said. She suffered a burn on her shoulder, and used cocoa butter as a salve. “The chemo knocks you down, it gets to the best of us.”
Bettis, a Detroit native but frequent Pittsburgher, did not want to tell her grown children about her diagnosis at first—one of the cruelties of cancer is the process of telling loved ones.
“The minute you hear that word, life changes,” she said. “Everything changes. It used to be a death sentence.”
But of course she did, and one of the gifts of her illness was being able to see, for the second time, just how grown up her grown children really are. The first was in 2006 upon the sudden death of her husband. Jerome, now living in Atlanta, is the youngest of her three children. He, along with his older brother John and sister Kimberly, saw to it that their mother had little to worry about other than fighting her disease. She also received immense help from a sister (Bettis is one of 12.)
“All I did was find something to wear” to my treatments, she said. “The biggest component in this whole thing is to have support. That’s me. I had the best support that anyone could ever have.”
Bettis understands that as a post-menopausal woman, her breast cancer is likely to be less aggressive than that of younger women. Still, there are moments where she might feel tired, and wonder if something more isn’t happening inside her body than fatigue.
“I have moments. I don’t get depressed, but I get to thinking, am I ok, is everything alright?” Sometimes, she says, she needs to just sit there and process it, think about where she’s been. “The mental part of it is enormous. Enormous.”
Since her recovery, she has made breast cancer awareness a personal mission. She urges awareness all year long. “They do all of this in October—what happens in November?” Bettis asks. She was honored this summer at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and was introduced by none other than The Bus.
Upon taking the stage, she simply said, “Hello ladies,” and took off her wig. The crowd went wild. She wanted to make it clear she understands what they were going through. She did not put the wig back on the rest of the day.
“You don’t need that hair to survive,” she said.
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