Fighters and survivors: Breast cancer survivors, activists in Vail talk disease during awareness month
EAGLE COUNTY — As you may or may not be aware, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Notwithstanding the preponderance of pink ribbons, the national observance may have gone unremarked by the average person. But the reality of breast cancer is felt every day of the year. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight American women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Other than skin cancers, it is the most common form of the disease among American women.
There are other basic breast cancer facts most everyone knows — early detection vastly improves survival rates, and monthly self-exams are recommended, as are yearly mamograms after age 40.
But in the spirit of awareness, some local women who have battled the disease personally or who have been active in the fight against breast cancer shared their thoughts about what people should know about breast cancer.
“Breast cancer is definitely not a death sentence.”
On March 17, Holli Snyder will mark the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis. She noted that learning you have breast cancer is a frightening experience. But when that news comes, Snyder said, local women need to know there are amazing resources available in this valley to treat the disease.
“We are so fortunate to have the facilities like the Shaw Cancer Center and the Sonnenalp Breast Center we have here,” Snyder said.
After living with cancer for nearly 10 years, Snyder wants people to know her life is good.
“I have many, many more positive days than negative ones,” she said.
Founder of Crawlin’ to a Cure
“A cancer diagnosis happens to the whole family, not just the one being treated.”
Since 2011, Vikki and Stewart Hobbs of Gypsum have been front-line warriors in the breast cancer battle. Over the past nine years, their Crawlin’ to a Cure rock crawling competitions have raised more than $300,000 for local families impacted by the disease through scholarships, cash grants and more.
“I think (after a breast cancer diagnosis) that kids suffer in silence because they don’t want to be a burden,” Vikki Hobbs said. “I think that kids spend a lot of time in fear.”
Hobbs’ inspiration was close to home. In 2007, her close friend — 36-year-old Tiffany Myers — was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Myers passed away in 2015 after her breast cancer metastasized to AML leukemia.
“Tiffany was a mother to two amazing boys, the wife of a supporting husband. She worked full time at the Eagle County School District. She was a friend of many and loved by all that knew her,” notes the Crawlin’ to a Cure website. “We will carry on her fight and honor her with the Tiffany Myers Memorial Keepin’ Em Real Scholarship Fund and continue helping families that we have seen firsthand fight to survive this disease. Tiffany’s story will forever be the heart of this nonprofit.”
“I think everyone’s first reaction, when diagnosed with breast cancer, is ‘What, you can’t mean me?”
Pat Hamilton — the popular singer, songwriter and guitarist who performs regularly in the Vail Valley — said it was a hard truth to learn that, most often, a cancer diagnosis is a luck-of-the-draw scenario.
“You wonder why it is you and if there is something you did wrong that caused you to have it,” she said. “When I found out I had breast cancer, I felt like a deer caught in headlights.”
But at her most vulnerable point, Hamilton said, the Shaw Cancer Center picked her up.
“Each time I went over to the Shaw for treatment, each time I went to a Fit for Survival class and the gym, I felt these people working with me had me covered,” Hamilton said. “I felt like I was wrapped in a blanket of extraordinary care and compassion. And I felt that I would be a survivor.”
Currently undergoing breast cancer treatment
“You know your own body.”
Last February, Connie Melzer underwent her routine mammogram, and the result was negative. But in March she noticed a lump. In April, her breast cancer was diagnosed. She has undergone a double mastectomy and will finish up her chemotherapy treatments in December.
In the wake of her breast cancer diagnosis, Melzer said her doctors went back and rechecked the February mammogram. Even knowing what they knew about her cancer, they couldn’t detect it in her mammogram film.
“I had a really aggressive form of cancer,” she said. “Who knows what would have happened if I had waited? It was a significant lump, though, and it was painful, so I don’t think I would have.”
“You are your own best advocate,” Melzer said. “Be proactive.”
Exercise physiologist for the Fit for Survival Program at Shaw Cancer Center
“There are so many resources now to help with survivorship.”
Sarah Giovagnoli works on the front line of the breast cancer battle and she can personally attest to the disease’s reach.
“It affects women of all ages. We have women in their 30s and women in their 70s,” she said.
Regardless of age or physical condition, Giovagnoli said the Shaw Cancer Center offers comprehensive care — including wellness services such as massage and acupuncture and fitness programs ranging from yoga to tai chi. Giovagnoli said all of these options are vital for survivorship.
“There’s a lot more we know how to treat women and help with their survival odds,” she said.
“I wish people were aware that mammograms don’t show all types of breast cancer.”
Just as with Melzer, Alease Lemon had a clear mammogram just months before her breast cancer was detected. Those test results, combined with the fact there was no history of breast cancer in her family, left Lemon shocked when her doctor found a lump.
“I really recommend that the people should do regular self-exams,” she said.
Lemon also has one other piece of advice for patients.
“Take help when it is offered. You may think you are OK and you may be trying to go on like normal, but it catches up with you.”
Lemon has had time to consider the impact of breast cancer on her life. Her diagnosis came 10 years ago.
“I didn’t think I would ever get to this day, mentally. When you are in the throes of it, you are just living day to day and you never think you will get beyond it,” she said.
But as time passes, Lemon could embrace the notion that she is a breast cancer survivor.
“Cancer isn’t the C-word like it was for our parents,” she said.