National Breast Cancer Awareness month draws attention to some of America’s bravest survivors. The passion and courage displayed by a cancer survivor is something that cannot be matched. But survivors and patients aren’t the only ones affected by this tragedy.
Breast cancer steals thousands of their lives every year. Family and friends of those with breast cancer and survivors face a long journey as well. From understanding to providing support, those with strong ties to survivors build strength, sympathy and understanding that provides immeasurable support to the breast cancer community.
Every penny counts
“It was never a second thought, really,” says Taylor Knable as she counts out coins from a seemingly endless pool on a countertop.
“My family always told me to give back and help others in need, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” she says.
As a little girl, Knable had no idea what sickness or cancer was. Her life was filled with friends, family and bedtime stories with her grandmother.
“When Nana got sick, it was like a bullet to the glass house,” she says. “I didn’t understand what cancer or chemotherapy was, and it didn’t make sense to me.”
Fortunately for Knable, her grandmother’s story had a happy ending.
“It wasn’t until she got better that I really understood what it was,” Knable says. “At first it was like someone was telling me and my little siblings that life isn’t fair — but seeing my grandma push through and survive lit a match under my family and that hasn’t stopped burning.”
And burning is exactly what that match continues to do. Knable has been active in raising money for breast cancer research ever since. In fifth grade, Knable says her parents had to stop her from going door to door to ask money for wigs for breast cancer patients that her Nana Ruth had befriended in the metro.
“I was a little hard-headed and didn’t really know how to go about it at first,” Knable jokingly says, admitting that all she gained from her first experience was $2 and some disgruntled phone calls from the family across the street.
Fortunately, Knable found her knack. In middle school, it was baking brownies with her classmates and selling them to raise money. She and her friends also organized what they called a “can campaign,” placing fundraiser canisters throughout local businesses to collect donations to send in. Knable rummages through a beloved can, decorated in colorful paper and designs, as she continues.
“My family wasn’t always financially stable, and it was great to receive help when my grandma was sick,“ Knable says.
She knows that money doesn’t grow on trees, so she made it her mission to pay it forward. Now in college, Knable remains active in the community by participating in special events and fundraisers.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, while breast cancer is not an inherited issue, genetic predisposure to developing cancer is.
“It’s important to stay proactive,” says Knable.
Her grandmother, who passed away of natural causes in 2013, lived a long and healthy life in part due to early detection.
“It’s just as simple as being aware of your body and examining yourself,” Knable says.
Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that recurrence of breast cancer is the most common within the first two years. The renowned hospital also suggests that diet and exercise can play an important role in avoiding breast cancer.
“As soon as Nana was healthy, she knew the battle might not be over. At 60, she took a proactive approach and changed her lifestyle completely,” she says. “My family did, too.”
UnityPoint Health of Des Moines suggests that mammography is the best way for concerned women to stay proactive about their health. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast and breast tissue. It’s suggested by the American Cancer Society that women over the age of 40 should have a yearly screening.
Did cancer ruin Knable’s family’s life? She says no.
“It changed it, that’s for sure,” she says. “But without the struggle, I don’t know that my eyes would have been opened to the world of giving back, to understanding the hundreds of thousands of patients and survivors who face this harsh reality. My grandma always told me that her cancer wasn’t a curse; it was a blessing in disguise.”
Finally finished with her counting, Knable smiles.
“Without it, I don’t know that I would have done this. I don’t know that this $10 in pennies and dimes would be here,” she says.
Heart in the right place
“It was a life-changing moment,” says Cassie May as she thumbs a pink breast cancer ribbon.
The Windsor Heights resident recalls the heart-stopping confession her best friend made to her just months ago. The 25-year-old metro transplant never imagined a future like this.
“It was always something you saw in movies or heard about,” she says. “There are no right words to say after your best friend tells you she has cancer. There’s no script.”
May and her college roommate Shelby Alexander had been inseparable since their time at Drake University. They had shared laughter, heartbreak, disappointments and achievements — and after the tears and hugs, they promised to share this next journey together, too.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish with your best friend by your side,” wrote Alexander underneath a photo posted of the inseparable duo on social media.
“So happy to have an amazing support system.”
The two can be seen smiling from ear to ear in photos with one another. Despite hospital gowns and IV tubes, there’s a strength and power to be seen.
One of the first big steps May remembers happened right away. Alexander wanted to freeze her eggs prior to chemotherapy to better her chances at conceiving in the future.
“That’s when it really set in,” says May. “But that’s when we promised each other we’d beat it. That we’d be sitting on a sunny beach this time next year, enjoying a cocktail and just enjoying ourselves.”
The next step was a trip to a local salon for a new ’do.
Finally, treatment began.
Being close to someone dealing with cancer has shed new light on Breast Cancer Awareness Month for May.
“Our entire friend circle’s wardrobe turned pink overnight,” she joked.
May even managed a team to hit the pavement in the Race for the Cure Des Moines on Oct. 4. With glue gun in hand, May worked tirelessly to decorate a set of special pink shirts on her coffee table for the race. She promises that she and her friend’s unique outfits will only be the first of several creative odes to breast cancer awareness. The duo is planning a creative project to contribute to the Bras for the Cause gala, but May says that their creation-in-progress will remain under wraps until November.
According to UnityPoint Health of Des Moines, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. It is also the second leading cause of cancer death for all women, making it the leading overall cause of death in women between the ages of 40 and 55. If cancer is discovered early enough, the five-year survival rate following treatment is a high of 96 percent, says the hospital. This is good news for Alexander and May both, with doctors saying early detection will play a key role in Alexander’s recovery.
How the duo is dealing with stage I breast cancer? Laughing in the face of danger, of course.
“Humor has been the best crutch,” says May. “Cancer is a scary thing, but laughter and smiling can get you through almost anything.”
As for their plans to relax seaside following recovery?
“We’re already looking for plane tickets,” says May.