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Luncheon puts focus on facing breast cancer

POSTED: October 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Former state Sen. Carol Jackson of White County talks with Wanda Bryant at the annual breast cancer awareness luncheon Wednesday at the Gainesville Civic Center. Jackson was the featured speaker at the event.

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It was a day to think pink.

More than 100 people attended District 2 Public Health’s third annual Breast Cancer Awareness Luncheon Wednesday at the Gainesville Civic Center. Co-sponsored by other local agencies and medical providers, the event raised funds for breast cancer education and screening.

Most of the people attending the luncheon, which also featured exhibits and a silent auction, were women. The majority were clad in pink, and several were proud survivors of breast cancer.

They listened intently to the keynote speech by former state Sen. Carol Jackson of White County, who described her own experience with breast cancer.

Jackson’s disease was discovered at a particularly inopportune time. Two years ago, she was trying to regain the Senate seat that she lost when her district was redrawn.

"When I learned that I had breast cancer, I wanted to keep it a secret," she said. "I thought maybe if we don’t talk about it, it will go away."

Her ordeal actually started in May 2005, when she found two lumps in her breast. A surgeon removed the larger lump, told her that it was benign and she would be fine. But Jackson wondered why nothing had been done about the smaller lump.

"They kept insisting it was just scar tissue (from the previous surgery)," she said. "Finally I insisted on a needle biopsy."

After the biopsy was done in 2006, the doctor called and told Jackson she did indeed have breast cancer. "He said, ‘You need to come in immediately.’"

But Jackson was still in denial and not ready to put her life on hold. "I said, ‘I’m speaking to the Kiwanis Club in Hartwell today.’ And I went on and did the speech."

Later, back in the doctor’s office, Jackson felt terrified but also angry.

"They said I needed to make all these decisions today (about surgery)," she said.

But after her earlier concerns about the breast lump had been ignored, she no longer had confidence in her physician.

"This doctor was a good man," she said. "But I said to him, ‘With all due respect, I’m going for a second opinion.’"

Her new surgeon diagnosed her with Stage 1 breast cancer, a very treatable condition. Jackson underwent a lumpectomy and radiation.

"While it was a bad thing, some good things came out of it," she said.

For one, she learned to take nothing for granted. She also realized that no one is immune to cancer, even if they think they have no risk factors.

"Nobody in my family had ever had breast cancer, and only one had had cancer of any kind," she said. "I don’t smoke, I’m not a habitual drinker, and I had never taken any of the medications that are associated with cancer."

Fortunately, while doctors can’t predict who will get cancer, they’ve gotten much better at treating it.

"Most breast cancer patients now live for at least 10 years after diagnosis," said Jackson. "But I’m not settling for 10 years. I’m two years out (from diagnosis), and I’m going to live a lifetime cancer-free."

She implored audience members to check themselves regularly for signs of the disease.

"Please make a promise to a ‘bosom buddy’ that you will do breast self-exams once a month," she said. "Nobody knows your body better than you do."

But monthly self-examinations are recommended only for women. It hardly ever occurs to anyone, even to physicians, that men can get breast cancer, too.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 2,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed in men each year, and about 450 men die of it.

North Hall resident James Dill discovered this grim reality himself in February 2006, when he was 62.

"I considered myself a very healthy man," he said. "I exercised, I never smoked or drank, I had no family history of cancer."

But an unusually sore spot on the right side of his chest sent him to the doctor. He was stunned to get a diagnosis of breast cancer. Dill endured a mastectomy, then a second surgery to remove lymph nodes. He went through chemotherapy and 34 radiation treatments.

Yet he considers himself lucky. "Folks, you are looking at a blessed man," he told the audience Wednesday.

The reason, he said, is his wife Carolyn, his "angel on Earth," who stayed beside him throughout every appointment and grueling treatment.

Some audience members, already moved by Jackson’s speech, began crying as Dill told his emotional story.

"Whatever trials you’re going through, pull your family members as close to you as you can," he advised them. "And don’t forget your friends. They want to help you, but don’t know how."



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