Beating breast cancer
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Beating breast cancer

Diagnosed at age 34, Mindy Parsons faced her greatest fear and fought back. Now, she helps thousands of patients across the country do the same.

Our reader shares her story

Last April, Ladies' Home Journal and the Komen National Race for the Cure asked readers to nominate breast-cancer heroes -- survivors whose stories were truly inspirational. We received hundreds of nominations, and many generous donations to help find a cure for the disease. Here, the winner of our contest shares her story.

Mindy Parsons' life has been changed by breast cancer not once, but twice. Twelve years ago, Mindy, now 39, was excitedly looking forward to meeting her birth mother for the first time when she received a devastating phone call. "I'm sorry," the counselor at the adoption agency told her, "but your mother passed away just a few days ago."

The cause of death, at age 48: breast cancer. At the time, says Mindy, "I was too upset to think about what she died from." But seven years later, that phone call came back to haunt her when she found a lump in her breast. A biopsy revealed she had infiltrating ductal carcinoma -- an especially aggressive tumor. "When I heard that, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room," says Mindy.

If there were ever a good time to get such bad news, this wasn't it. Mindy, who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, had just been laid off from her job as an editor of legal newsletters. Her twins, Cody and Savannah, were just two years old. And her husband, Judd, now 35, had a job as a private yacht captain that took him away from home for weeks at a time.

Just three days after receiving her diagnosis, Mindy underwent a modified radical mastectomy on her cancerous breast. Following the surgery, she endured six months of chemotherapy. She struggled with fatigue, gained 30 pounds and watched her long, beautiful hair come out in clumps.

In many ways, Mindy's illness brought her and Judd closer: "Now, we don't take each other for granted, ever," says Judd. "We had been married just a few years when she was diagnosed. This was the first real test we faced together."

Mindy also gained support from her loving adoptive parents, Max and Margery Enos. "It was hard on her, both emotionally and physically," says her mother, who nominated Mindy as an LHJ breast-cancer hero. "Mindy had a lot of good days and a few very bad ones. I was proud of how she handled it."

With love and support

Helpful, too, was Judd's family, which includes two ministers. "We had people up and down the Eastern seaboard praying for us," says Mindy. Her faith was indispensable to her recovery. "Judd and I belong to a wonderful church. I found incredible solace and strength there."

Although young, her daughter and son were aware of her illness, and they had lots of questions. Mindy remembers one day when she was explaining to her son why she had a scar on her chest. "My daughter walked in and said, 'Mommy, when I'm your age, will they do that to me, too?' I took a deep breath, and I told her, 'If I have anything to do with it, this will never happen to you.'"

An "information junkie," Mindy read every book about cancer she could find. Even so, she often felt in the dark about her treatment. "My doctor didn't discuss lumpectomy with me -- he just said, 'You should definitely get a modified radical mastectomy,'" she says.

Feeling helpless and deeply afraid, Mindy fell into a depression after her chemotherapy. "It's hard to realize, at thirty-four, that you're mortal," she says. She also struggled with the results of her surgery. "You don't realize until they're gone how much of your sense of femininity comes from your breasts," she says.

Fortunately, Mindy began meeting with a social worker trained in dealing with cancer patients. "She pulled me out of my funk," says Mindy. She also recommended a female oncologist more sympathetic to Mindy's need to be involved in important decisions about her treatment.

Mindy then made the difficult decision to have her other, healthy breast removed. "Because of my young age, the aggressiveness of the cancer and my family history, it felt like the right choice," says Mindy. "I didn't want to live in fear." (Recent studies show that prophylactic mastectomies -- removal of both breasts -- reduce the risk of breast cancer for women at high-risk of the disease.)

As her depression lifted, Mindy wondered if she could do something to help other women in her situation. With the encouragement of the social worker, she started a newsletter called "Breast Cancer Survivor."

Helping other survivors

The first year, she distributed the newsletter through doctors' offices, and attracted 80 subscribers. Its popularity grew quickly by word of mouth, and now, four years later, more than 12,000 women regularly turn to Mindy's news updates, resource lists, book reviews and -- "everybody's favorite," she says -- survivor stories.

Sharing her knowledge has been an important part of Mindy's own survival story, helping her overcome her paralyzing fears of recurrence. "Having that mission to concentrate on has helped me tremendously," she says. Mindy gets dozens of calls a month from women who've just been diagnosed and don't know where to turn. "I try to point them in the right direction and get them started in educating themselves," says Mindy.

Last June, Mindy threw a party to celebrate her fifth anniversary of being cancer-free. At her last checkup, her oncologist declared, "I now pronounce you cured."

"I don't consider myself someone living with cancer," says Mindy. All the same, she adds, "I don't think anything is ever the same after cancer -- not your relationships, not your feelings about your body, not the way you look at the sunrise." All those things are now pierced with an awareness of her own mortality, and that makes her treasure life all the more. "I'm not trying to get back to 'normal' -- normal is no longer my goal," she says. "My goal is to live life with as much exuberance as I can." --Annie Murphy Paul

Breast-cancer breakthroughs

Screen savers. Mammograms are now being supplemented by additional technologies: digital mammography, for example, allows doctors to send a suspicious mammogram in an electronic format (similar to e-mail) to other doctors for faster consultation; computer-aided detection systems help draw examiners' attention to suspicious areas. And electrical impedance scanning, finds tumors by recognizing the different ways malignant and normal tissue respond to the flow of electricity.

Surgical solutions. Needle biopsies employ a sophisticated guidance system to locate and sample tissue from an abnormal area. In ductal lavage, cells from the breast's milk ducts are collected, then checked for changes that might indicate cancer.

In terms of cancer treatment, the emphasis is now on conserving the breast. Studies show that a lumpectomy plus radiation therapy offers survival rates similar to more extensive operations.

Chemical cures. Doctors are exploring the potential of new chemotherapy drugs, and new combinations of drugs. Studies are also under way to evaluate high-dose chemotherapy and pre-operative chemotherapy; by shrinking the tumor before surgery, the latter treatment may allow more women to choose breast-conserving surgery over mastectomy.

Hormone therapies, such as the drug tamoxifen, are used to treat breast cancer. One study shows that it may also help prevent the disease in women at high risk. Now scientists are also evaluating raloxifene, a medicine that may offer the benefits of tamoxifen with fewer side effects.

Biological therapies that team up with the body's immune system to fight breast cancer are also emerging as important tools. The first such therapy was approved in 1998: Herceptin, a drug that works by destroying tumors that produce an excess of the protein HER-2. --Annie Murphy Paul