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Donna Szabo, 71, survived breast cancer in 1984

Donna Szabo, 71, who survived breast cancer in 1984, holds a photo of her grandchildren.

It cannot be that I am only 38

"You have breast cancer," I was told

With no family history, shock sets in

How will I face this bend in the road?

Donna Szabo found the lump herself, randomly. She was terrified.

The Portage mother had no family history of breast cancer. How could this happen?

She found the lump on a Thursday, had a mammogram that Friday and was diagnosed on a Saturday. Her fears were realized.

What do I tell my two young sons?

Oh, dear lord, I need your touch

How I want to see them grow up

Is that asking too much?

At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the five-year survival rate for a breast cancer patient was about 75 percent. Today, that number is above 90 percent.

She also was among the small number of women — roughly 5 percent — diagnosed before the age of 40.

So Szabo was seriously worried that she might not be able to see her boys, then 10 and 14, graduate from college, get married, have kids of their own.

Her goal was to see them finish high school.

At the time, Northwest Indiana had only a fraction of the breast cancer services it has today, so Szabo had to go to either Chicago or South Bend for treatment.

Her doctor, at Rush University Medical Center, got her in that Monday. He said his goal was to make sure she lived another 50 years.

Luckily, her cancer was stage one and hadn't metastasized. The doctor recommended against chemotherapy because of her age because he knew she needed the energy to care for her children.

Following surgery, technology became my friend

With each radiation zap, I was becoming well once more

Early detection combined with a phenomenal medical team

Contributed to my breast cancer survival. That was 1984.

At first, she wasn't honest with her sons about her cancer. But they eventually figured it out.

She promised them, post-surgery, that she was just as healthy as all their friends' moms were.

For the first five years after her diagnosis, she went in for imaging every three months. She was screened every six months for the five years after that.

Those two young sons, I saw them graduate

From high school and college too

I danced with them on their wedding day

There is so much living to do.

She eventually gave back by becoming certified to fit women who have had mastectomies with prosthetic breasts, wigs, swimwear. She loved the job.

She worked for a clinic in Michigan City for a half-dozen years, for LaPorte Hospital for another six.

She took care of more than 500 women. She made them feel comfortable during a difficult time. She could relate to them, empathize. She knew what they were going through.

Now I am blessed with three grandchildren

My heart overflows as I watch them grow

I never dreamed I would see this day

When I was diagnosed 33 years ago.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.