EDITORIAL: We stand with our breast cancer warriors
They're our mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins.
They're our close friends, neighbors and coworkers.
They all have a voice, and we want you to hear it in their words.
Today, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we open pages of our Sunday Forum section to the voices of breast cancer warriors and survivors who live among us in Northwest Indiana.
What we all can draw from those voices is nothing short of profound.
Brave women, who are fighting or have struggled with this disease, are among us everywhere.
They tell us of their fights and that the miracle of modern medicine means a breast cancer diagnosis is no longer a likely death sentence.
They honor the family caregivers who stood with them, side by side, through harrowing bouts of radiation, chemotherapy and the natural fear and uncertainty.
Sharon Ross, The Times regional news editor and a beloved employee, is one of those voices you hear from today on the Forum cover.
Sharon is a survivor of breast cancer, having beaten a 2007 diagnosis into the submission of remission.
Our hearts broke for her earlier this month when an annual checkup at Mayo Clinic revealed cancer had returned.
But Sharon's heart is anything but broken. The words in her column — "I’ve got this" — echo from so many brave breast cancer warriors and survivors throughout our Region.
Sharon is the epitome of bravery, and we know she does "got this."
Today is a day for their voices, not ours, to tell these epic stories of human struggle and survival.
Please join us in standing with them.
SURVIVOR: In the fight of my life, I've got this
I knew it.
I had an appointment five weeks ago for my annual screening at the mammography department at Mayo Clinic. I'd been there for several hours and grew more anxious as time passed. Clearly, something bothersome had been detected.
Additional images were taken. Then a couple of ultrasounds were ordered to take a closer look at a suspicious spot.
A doctor was summoned.
"It's protocol for a doctor to look at these images," the radiologist explained.
I'd been through the drill 11 years earlier, and I knew what it meant.
There was a good chance my breast cancer had returned.
The spot, about the size of a blueberry, was biopsied, and my husband and I drove the 400-plus-mile trip home to await the results.
Forty-eight hours later, a phone call from my doctor confirmed my fear. The biopsy tested positive for the disease.
My breast cancer has returned.
The doctor tried to sound encouraging as he said the lesion was small and caught early.
I'd braced myself for the news, but I was worried about my husband. He had lost his mother to breast cancer years ago. Granted, tremendous strides have been made in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer since then.
I felt sick. It broke my heart to see him hurt.
There are a flood of emotions and reactions as the news sinks in. First you're numb. Then — gradually — you accept the hand you've been dealt.
We've been through this before.
We shared the news with family and friends. The support and encouragement have been overwhelming.
And the prayers.
Words cannot express the comfort and strength of prayer.
"You've got this," so many people tell us.
Armed with that support, we drove to Rochester last Sunday for a consultation Monday with the doctor assigned my case.
I had pretty much decided how I wanted to tackle this based on the successful surgery I had at Northwestern University in 2008. My tumor was removed in a procedure that was so quick the surgeon didn't even have to intubate me.
A lumpectomy and radiation sounded manageable this time, but the doctor cautioned this cancer was different.
This was invasive ductal cancer, possibly involving the lymph nodes. If that were the case, treatment would be a mastectomy and chemotherapy.
An ultrasound was ordered to determine the condition of the lymphs. One looked different, a radiologist said, and the only way to determine its malignancy was to biopsy it.
In preparation for surgical clearance, the doctor also ordered blood work and a chest X-ray.
"So, this spot on your lung ...," she began to say, reading from a pathology report.
What spot? I was at the clinic five weeks ago, and there was no spot — or no mention of it in my report.
It was small, she said, but it had changed shape in a few short weeks and grown. The medical team needed to know what was going on, so a CT scan was ordered.
The results of the biopsy and scan will dictate how we proceed.
I've realized it's futile to worry about what those tests will show. I'll have plenty enough to deal with when the time comes.
I'll take it a day at a time.
I'm going into this fight with faith, family and friends.
I've got this.
SURVIVOR: Caregivers carry scars too
A certain scene runs through my mind on repeat.
The constant, rhythmic beeping of the breathing and heart machines.
The room that only seems to get colder like winter has taken up permanent residency.
The strange stillness, like the room is holding its breath, waiting for the next update.
When you read about cancer, it’s often from the perspective of the patient or survivor. There is this desire to pull the dark cloak back on such a difficult experience and show how awful it feels to be diagnosed with cancer.
But a recent personal experience sitting bedside by my mother as her health failed showed me a different perspective: the role of the caregiver.
I thought dealing with my own breast cancer fight was difficult, but being on the other side of the hospital bed brings a whole other set of challenges.
You are powerless in such a different way. You not only must maintain hope that the doctors know what they are doing but also put on a brave face for your sick loved one and display outward optimism about the situation.
You must pay attention to everything the doctor says and quickly learn medical speak to explain what was said to the patient when he or she inevitably has questions later.
Tattooed in my mind is the image of my mom mouthing to me from her hospital bed, despite her breathing tube:
“What happened? Will I die? I am scared.”
No one should ever have to answer questions like this — but many do. Even though my mom did not have cancer, the caregiver feelings that my sister and I experienced are comparable.
My sister and I would say when it all became overwhelming: “This is a lot.”
It didn’t mean we were leaving the hospital or retreating. It was our way of taking a breath and acknowledging that someone we love was in pain. As a caregiver, you put so much of yourself aside unselfishly, which you should, but it doesn’t mean this role isn’t hard.
Through the nonprofit I started, Humor Beats Cancer (humorbeatscancer.com), I have learned about the challenges cancer caregivers face.
Chef Ryan Callahan, his mom’s caregiver for the first year of cancer treatment, wrote on my organization’s blog: “As a full-time caregiver, I was fairly isolated from the rest of the world. And being a primary caregiver is a round-the-clock, 24/7 job. One of the biggest challenges that I faced was social anxiety. Long periods of isolation would make trips to the grocery store an anxiety-filled time.”
Other bloggers diagnosed with cancer described how important those caregivers were to their journey — whether it was help for the patients in shaving their heads when they couldn’t do it or jotting down notes as the doctors delivered heavy information they couldn’t comprehend in the moment.
It can be understandably easy to forget these people when all the focus is on the patient. But caregivers' lives change too. The dreams and goals they develop with cancer patients may change or get postponed. They often feel guilty that this is happening to someone they love while they remain healthy.
Another of our bloggers, Honore Nolting, wrote a memoir from the perspective of a young adult cancer caregiver titled “128 Days and Counting.”
Her husband, Tom, was diagnosed with cancer at age 30, just three years into their marriage.
She wrote: “As a couple, we love to travel and explore. It was one of the things that was so hard to have taken away from us when he was sick. For the most part, we had to hunker down and not be out and about, especially considering his treatment was during peak flu season, and he had no immune system.”
This particular blog post described how when Tom completed treatment they went on vacation. But the scar that cancer left behind on his chest made him self-conscious. She described how the scar is a “daily reminder of a dark time in our lives, but like scars, we continue to heal, we move on, and more than anything we are thankful that he is still here — scars and all.”
They both must heal from cancer.
She may not have a physical scar, but she definitely sports emotional scars — reminders that life can be disrupted because of a disease.
Cancer (or really any disease) leaves behind fear, sadness, a loss of hope and optimism, and a whole slew of other feelings that challenge everyone in the patient’s sphere of love — including caregivers.
When you are feeling like “this is a lot,” remember that you, as a caregiver, are not alone. Other people are out there feeling similarly and hoping they make the right decisions for their loved ones.
Like the movie that plays in my head of my mother’s hospital stay and eventual death, you cannot always press pause or even stop.
It just keeps playing, creating renewed pain and fear — reminders of how finite life can be and how quickly life can change because of a disease or medical condition.
But hopefully somewhere inside us all we find strength to move forward and to show love to others and to ourselves. We are testimonials of human strength every day that we get up and keep going.
Caring for others is the ultimate gift we can give someone going through cancer, or any disease.
SURVIVOR: 42 years and counting
When people talk about "getting older," I just think of how grateful I am to be among them.
Forty-two years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 2 metastatic breast cancer. The prognosis was not a good one, yet 42 years later here I am. Yes, getting older — and yes, very appreciative.
All those years ago, getting that diagnosis didn’t hold a lot of promise for surviving. You were often sent home with a wish and a prayer.
I was just 33 when diagnosed. I had two small children at home: Brian, 7, and Chrissy, 4. I hadn’t yet celebrated my 10th wedding anniversary with my husband, Paul.
I had so much to look forward to, and who would have thought at that age and stage in my life I would have to struggle with the diagnosis of breast cancer. I endured a year of chemotherapy — 36 rounds — followed by several reconstructive surgeries.
Those of us in this “sisterhood” strive to reach that first plateau — the five-year mark. Never far from the back of our minds is the question:
“Will my cancer rear its ugly head again in the future?”
At some point, you have to move forward, being grateful for the years you’ve had and pray for the years to come.
This year, Paul and I celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary. Who would have thought?
I got to watch my children grow, graduate and get married, and experience the greatest joy of all, becoming a grandma. I got to watch all four of our awesome grandchildren come into this world.
Taylor graduated from Valparaiso University and now is an intensive-care nurse at St. Mary Medical Center. Savanna is in her sophomore year at Valparaiso University. Benjamin is 16 and a sophomore at Hebron High School. And our Shelbi became a teenager this year.
In August, we partied with my daughter, Christine, and her husband, Bill, as they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, and are getting ready to celebrate with Brian and Natalie as they prepare for their 14th anniversary this fall.
Helping my daughter pick out her wedding dress was a dream come true, and it was amazing watching her walk down the aisle on the arm of her father.
We were overjoyed watching my "little boy," Brian, get down on one knee as he proposed to his soon-to-be wife, Natalie, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 2004, knowing that the coming years would be amazing for them.
How could things get any better?
OMG, my Taylor is engaged to her fiancé, Andrew — to be married in 2020.
This coming year promises to be filled with the excitement of planning their future, dress-shopping, showers and parties.
I get to be there to help make these beautiful memories.
I often ask myself, “Why am I still here?”
Life has been so good to me and to my family. I am so appreciative for the many doctors and nurses who helped me through the most difficult times — and to family who were there every step of the way.
Why am I still here? Not sure, but I am thankful and try to pay it forward every chance I get.
In the early years following my diagnosis, I was busy with treatments, surgeries, working, raising my family, etc. But never far from my mind, I kept thinking of a way I could help others as they struggle with the diagnosis of breast cancer.
I wanted to find a way to show my appreciation for surviving — a way to thank God for letting me have such an awesome life.
That’s where Pink Ribbon Society comes into the picture.
In 2000, Pink Ribbon Society was founded. With an amazing group of volunteers by my side, we worked to find ways to help women following their diagnoses. There are a lot of organizations raising money to help find a cure for breast cancer, and we pray that day isn’t far away.
But we know there are so many things patients need right here and right now following such an unexpected diagnosis.
Our plan was to raise funds to develop programs that could support the women in our community — patients who were struggling with the awful challenge of surviving breast cancer.
There are no instructions on how to act or react to this hideous diagnosis.
Many of the ladies who make up Pink Ribbon Society are advocates who empathize with patients. Others are survivors themselves.
They understand the struggle the patients are facing. Been there … done that.
They have lived through the diagnosis, treatment and struggles and share the fears of the unknown.
The first initiative we implemented was our Wig Reimbursement Program. So many women lose their hair during treatment. A wig can help a patient maintain their dignity and confidence during this difficult time. Most insurance companies do reimburse the cost of wigs. It is often considered a cosmetic expense and not covered by most plans.
Pink Ribbon will underwrite the cost of a wig up to $150 per patient/per diagnosis. They are referred to one of several salons in the area that can accommodate their specific needs. To date, Pink Ribbon has underwritten more than $82,000 for about 600 women in our community.
We also focus on the early detection of breast cancer by covering the cost of screening and diagnostic mammograms and ultrasounds for women who are uninsured, underinsured or who simply don’t have the means to pay for these lifesaving tests.
Remember that early detection is key to surviving breast cancer. Since its inception, Pink Ribbon has underwritten more than $100,000 to cover these costs.
Other programs include Bundles of Hope, Pink Compression, Indiana Women In Need and Pink Pockets.
To date, Pink Ribbon Society has donated over $550,000 to individuals and other organizations in Lake, Porter, Jasper and Newton counties in need of the programs, services and programs we provide.
WARRIOR: A roller coaster you can't get off
My name is Jenny. I'm 49 with two children from Chesterton and currently going through radiation treatment.
My son has special needs and has a lot of medical challenges. I am used to being the strong one on the other side of medical appointments and not the patient.
In June of 2019, I had my annual mammogram and soon thereafter was diagnosed with breast cancer. I'm now the patient.
Those words were hard to hear, and I felt my world falling apart. The first few days after a diagnosis, you're in an emotional tailspin. I describe it as being on a roller coaster that you can't get off.
It was when I got a plan and had my team of doctors that my anxiety and fear slowly subsided. The love from everyone around me has helped the most. If you know of someone going through a cancer diagnosis, reach out. The love from each person who has reached out to me has cheered me up and kept me going.
I urge women to get their yearly mammogram. I know it saved my life, and I hope to pay it forward by spreading awareness.
Jennifer Hansen, Chesterton
SURVIVOR: Living a 'fabulous' life through cancer fight
On April 27, 2017, my mom and I sat in the my oncologist's office as he told me the test results confirmed I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, which had spread to my lymph nodes, bones and lungs.
This is where most would begin the depression process after the initial shock. Not me.
I've always had a strong belief in God and was always told by my mom: "If you pray, don't worry." And that's the attitude I had. I would do what was necessary but not without prayer.
I decided to keep a positive attitude and live a fabulous life as if I didn't have cancer.
I had five surgeries, including reconstruction, within 14 months and have been in remission 25 months. I've had no sickness and very little pain during this journey. Every time I'm asked how I'm doing, my response is "fabulous."
I make it my business to let people know I truly believe God was in control of my outcome.
Doctors have said it's a miracle that in three months of oral medication the cancer on my lungs and bones was gone, and the cancer on my lymph nodes and breast was drastically reduced.
Further oral treatments and surgeries (no chemo or radiation) have given me a life to celebrate and a testimony to let others know that breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence.
I am a member of three support groups, have been on two radio shows, have done two church engagements and constantly tell my testimony to give hope and encouragement to those going through this journey. Get your mammogram when due, and remember: God is good.
Anne Herbert, Hammond
WARRIOR: I'm kicking cancer's butt!
My name is Jennifer Miller, and I am 43.
I was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ and later found that I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene as well as I am estrogen-receptor positive.
This diagnosis turned my world upside down quickly, and I am lucky to have had my family and friends to support me throughout this hard journey.
Thankfully with the support from my husband, Wes; parents and stepparents; my two wonderful boys Marc, 18, and Aiden, 7, both of whom mean the world to me; along with close extended family and friends, I am here today to share my story.
I was scared and yes I cried, but you gotta keep moving and stay positive.
Upon diagnosis, my journey began with a double mastectomy, a 12-week course of chemotherapy along with Herceptin treatments every three weeks.
I can proudly say I completed the treatments in August, and for that I am grateful! A whole lot more comes with breast cancer — not just physically but also emotionally.
It first hit me when I had to cut my hair as it was falling out from the chemotherapy. To some it’s just hair, but like everything else it was a part of me and who I am.
And honestly, I sure do miss my beautiful long hair, but I know in time that is something that will grow back. Breast cancer changed my outlook on life. Sure I was tired at times, but I do not let cancer define the strong person I am and found throughout this process.
My family means the world to me and helped motivate me to keep pushing harder to fight this cancer because I want to be here for all my family’s treasured events.
My boys are my life, and I will be here to watch them grow up. I will be there to watch my son get his diploma. My little guy Aiden — I will be there for all his baseball games. Mom loves watching him play his sports.
I’m not going to lie. There are times of anger when I ask, "Why me?"
I was determined that I wasn’t going to let cancer control me, so I decided to fight long and hard, and I can say with much strength and courage that I have kicked cancer’s butt!
Jennifer Miller, Crown Point
WARRIOR: Reoccurrences only make me fight harder
I continue to fight.
Back in 2013, I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy, chemo and radiation and was told I was in remission. In 2015, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in my bones. I was not prepared for the second diagnosis less than two years from my initial diagnosis. But once again, I fought the disease and was in remission almost a year later.
In 2018, just a few weeks after my husband was diagnosed with throat cancer, I was told once again that the cancer was back. I could have chosen to give up. But instead, I fought harder.
The cancer once again outsmarted my medication. I was put on a new drug called Kisqali. We still aren’t sure if this medication is working. I have a tumor that shrunk but one that grew. I’m told that my options are in a box, and we only have so many to choose from.
If this medication doesn’t work, then it’s back to chemo for me. I am already prepared for the fact that this disease might one day kill me, but then so could a car or something else. I have chosen to stop looking at cancer as a death sentence. I look forward to the days I can spend with my children, my grandson and my husband.
I am choosing to live my life to the fullest. I go to work every day, and in my spare time I am involved in Relay for Life. I’m hoping that one day, no one will hear the words that your medication stopped working or that you have cancer. I will continue to fight as long as I can. I am not ready to give up.
Kathy Keith, Griffith
WARRIOR: It took my mother, now wife's battle rages on
Mom goes in to have a biopsy done on a lump in her throat. By now we already know the breast cancer she has been battling for 20 years has metastasized into her bones, liver and other organs. The doctor is planning a tracheotomy until the lump can be tested.
Mom's test come back positive for a slow-growing cancer. We notice a lump on her head and have it tested. It is breast cancer. We also notice she is losing her short-term memory. We move her to my house until she can get better.
My wife has surgery to reconstruct breast from a double mastectomy and subsequent chemo in 2013. After cleared by a doctor, she goes to New Hampshire to recover. Four days later she is having emergency surgery in Boston because her skin is black. The implant was taken out, and the dead skin removed, leaving a 2-by-6-inch gap in her chest.
Mom has been entered in a home-hospice program.
My days now consist of taking care of Mom, repacking the hole in my wife's chest and trying to keep focused at work.
Wife has major surgery removing a large portion of skin from her back and moving it to her front to begin rebuilding her breast and cover the hole in her chest.
Mom is rarely eating and communicates less and less. The hospice nurse points out the large area on her chest that is breast cancer coming to the surface.
Mom dies. Her cause of death is extensive metastatic breast cancer.
My wife has more surgeries to reconstruct breasts.
This is just a brief description of what happened.
It would take a lot more than 300 words to describe all that was going on.
The battle continues to this day.
Paul Kullmann, Valparaiso
SURVIVOR: My survival journey
My name is Lori Equihua (pronounced E-key-wa). I am 52 and reside in Merrillville. On May 12, I became a three-year breast cancer survivor.
This is my journey.
In March 2016, I made my annual mammogram appointment figuring this was a no-brainer. I'd go in, have the exam and wait for my annual letter from the breast care center saying, "See you next year. Your results are normal."
I never gave this "routine" exam a second thought until I received a phone call from the center asking me to come back for a repeat mamo. At that time, I figured that maybe my film was a blur or that the X-ray tech had me positioned incorrectly and that this was the reason for the repeat. So again, I went in for the second exam — no big deal.
April 1, 2016, was the day my life changed forever. (Ironically, this was no April Fool's joke). I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in my right breast. To say the least, this was a curveball I never saw coming. I felt fine. It couldn't be true. I was absolutely too busy to be sick. My youngest son was graduating high school in June, I had a graduation party to plan, invitations to mail and a trip to New York in September.
I didn't have time for this. After the initial shock of being told I need to see an oncologist, schedule surgery and possibly have more tests performed, I broke down and cried with my then-husband and son, as we couldn't believe what were hearing. It was that day, and that day only that I allowed myself to feel any self-pity. My motto was that I was going to kick this bitch to the curb, and live the rest of my life.
It's funny how the power of mind over matter works. I can honestly say that I never once felt afraid, and as I look back I always had a sense of calm within me. I credit this to the "big man upstairs," my Lord.
On May 12, 2016, I had a lumpectomy to my right breast and four lymph nodes removed. I endured 28 rounds of radiation therapy. I AM A SURVIVOR!!! I am a survivor not only because of my wonderful doctor and her team but for the constant support I received from my sons and mother, friends and co-workers. I continued to work through my treatment which helped me heal mentally. I saw my son graduate. We celebrated at his party, then he and I and my mother had a wonderful vacation in New York that fall.
Although my body will never be the same, cancer has not put a stop to way I live my life. I am grateful and excited to see my oldest son become engaged. I am dating a wonderful man and have become a "surrogate" grandmother to his grandchildren. Most importantly, I am pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines.
Lori Equihua, Merrillville
WARRIOR: Cancer is not a death sentence
You may or may not remember me because I wrote about my cancer in The Times breast cancer awareness edition a year ago. Remember? I called my stage 4 cancer diagnosis an early Christmas gift because I received it the week before Christmas in 2017.
In the past year I have come to realize that I am never alone with this disease. So many others carry their cross with dignity and acceptance. Never ever call cancer a battle in my presence because it is not my battle; it is my gift. When someone says that I am brave or I have such an amazing positive attitude I am humbled. However, it has nothing to do with me at all — I live in the present moment because, after all, the past is gone and the future lies ahead.
In complete and total honesty I tell everybody that I am here today because of God‘s grace and the power of prayer! You can tell someone that I have cancer, but the second sentence will always be: Please remember me in your prayers.
Cancer is not a death sentence — it is a gift to be embraced with courage.
Kathy Erdelac, Valparaiso
SURVIVOR: Mammogram was a lifesaver
Get your annual mammogram!
I had mine done sure that it would be clear. It wasn’t, and I needed another one because they found something. Nope, not me! No history of that in my family! But needle biopsies in my right breast confirmed that I had invasive ductal carcinoma.
I started my treatment at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago. I can’t say enough about my amazing team there. My cancer surgeon removed two tumors (stage 1), and soon after that my plastic surgeon performed reconstruction and reduction. Thanks to the early detection, all indications are that I am clear of the disease and I’m moving on to the next stage. I’ve met my radiation oncologist and my medical oncologist. Those treatments will begin soon.
I’ve been blessed to have a family that surrounds me with love and with friends and a church family whose abundance of prayer has lifted me up and guided my doctors’ hands! I am so grateful to everyone involved in this unexpected journey!
Sheila Burnside, Valparaiso
SURVIVOR: Cancer-free for four years after epic battle
I started chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2014, on my 37th birthday.
I found a lump on my left breast, and since my mother was already a breast cancer survivor I got into the doctor right away. After a round of tests and a biopsy, the doctor confirmed that it was cancer.
After six rounds of chemo, I was scheduled for a lumpectomy. The day before my surgery, I got a call that the latest MRI showed something suspicious on the right side and they were cancelling my surgery.
They sent me for more tests to figure out what was on the right side. A regular mammogram and ultrasound didn’t show anything unusual or alarming, so I was sent to a different hospital for an MRI biopsy.
The day after this procedure, I got the news that the cancer was in both breasts. My doctors recommended a double mastectomy, which was done in June of 2015. I opted for reconstruction, and the reconstruction process began on the same day as the mastectomy. The final reconstruction surgery was done in October of 2015.
I decided at the beginning of the whole process that the journey was either going to be positive or hilarious. Since it was often hard to make it positive, friends and family helped me make it funny.
After we found out I was having the double mastectomy, my mom gave me money to buy a shirt that says, "Yes they're fake! My real ones tried to kill me." I still have that shirt, and I wear it as often as possible. I have been cancer-free for four years now.
Jennifer Price, Winfield
SURVIVOR: Prayers for those fighting this scourge
I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (two tumors) on Oct 13, 2015. I was 43 years old. After a lumpectomy and port placement I went through 16 rounds of chemo and 30 rounds of radiation.
Twenty-seven years earlier, my mother fought inflammatory breast cancer and survived after a mastectomy and one year of chemo. Five days before Christmas 2018, my 48-year-old sister was diagnosed with estrogen-positive breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and 36 rounds of radiation.
I pray every day for the fighters, survivors and those who have lost the battle. May God bless them all.
Kelly Shindle, Demotte