When she was in her thirties, country singer Kelly Lang felt lumps in her left breast. She brushed it like, well, a lumpy breast. After all, many women have them (lumps). She ignored him until a friend who had just had breast cancer urged her to get checked out. Reluctantly, she did and received a clean bill of health.
But the lumps did not go away. Indeed, after several months, her left breast became sore. Again, more worried this time, Lang saw a doctor, another. The stunning diagnosis: The Big C, as she calls him in her recent book, “I’m Not Going Anywhere,” with a foreword by the late singer Olivia Newton-John.
Luckily for Lang, she had an understanding partner, country singer TG Sheppard, with both the willingness and the financial resources to help take care of her. After surgery followed by chemotherapy, Lang was told she was clean – and clearly still is, 17 years later – a huge relief for her and her family.
Having found myself in a similar situation with my ex-partner, Laurie, several years ago, I can relate to Lang’s experience. When Laurie called from work to give me her diagnosis I felt like a Mack truck [excuse the cliche] had hit me. Like Lang, she was in her early thirties. Isn’t it an old woman’s disease?
Not really. There’s a lower incidence in younger women, of course, one in 204 for those in their 30s, according to the National Cancer Institute. More surprising is that, overall, women born in the United States today have about a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. For perspective, that’s increased dramatically, from one in 10 in the 1970s. Think about it.
The afternoon of Laurie’s call, I abruptly abandoned the story I was writing and headed to Barnes and Noble to buy some books on the disease. What I have discovered in my reading is that there are many types and stages of breast cancer, and women have choices when it comes to treatment. The disease is not necessarily a death sentence and can often be managed. It gave me some optimism.
Lang’s book, a copy of which she gave me during my recent visit to Nashville, Tennessee, is a personal account of her own life and her battle with breast cancer. Turns out his cancer was stage 2 and had spread to the lymph nodes under his arm. It was more advanced than Laurie’s stage 1, which hadn’t metastasized yet. Like Lang, Laurie opted to have a lumpectomy operation, then several weeks of radiation therapy and, as hers was an estrogen-responsive tumor, took the prescription drug Tamoxifen to help prevent recurrences. Because Lang was already in stage 2, she had to add the dreaded chemotherapy to her treatment.
What particularly interests me is that Sheppard wrote chapter 22 of Lang’s book, which I easily identify with. Other than my own research and helping Laurie make decisions, I felt pretty helpless. I wasn’t a doctor, I wasn’t a trained psychologist – and it wasn’t me who suffered physically. All I could do was offer reassurance, as Sheppard did, and, just as important, a somewhat objective opinion in seeking hospitals and treatments.
For example, at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, there was a recommendation to consider a mastectomy. New York Hospital down the street was more progressive in its thinking, recommending lumpectomy. Both are among the best cancer hospitals in the country. It could be argued that Sloan, while more conservative, offered a better chance of long-term survival, but the statistics for Laurie’s cancer type and stage were about the same for both treatments.
Key takeaways from Lang’s book and my own experience: Breast cancer is prevalent – one in eight is a startling statistic. So if you feel anything, get checked out. Once diagnosed, get a second opinion, maybe a third. Lang found out the hard way that she had been misdiagnosed, which cost her valuable time to seek treatment. Educate yourself by researching the types and stages of breast cancer – there are so many. And finally, as a partner, help in all these areas. Often the affected woman is dizzy, frightened and unable to think clearly.
Women of all ages – and those close to them – might consider “I’m not going anywhere”. There are plenty of textbooks on the subject, of course, but this well-written personal account features an optimistic, open-minded, and colorful woman being in the entertainment business. It also shows the other side: Lang’s pain from chemotherapy, the shock of losing her hair just three weeks after starting chemo, the financial burden of her treatments, her heartbreaking preventative hysterectomy later, her faith questioned in God, etc. The narrative also gives a perspective on a partner’s illness not often found in such books. Given the recent passing of Olivia Newton-John after her own battle with breast cancer, the book is also timely.