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.