It was a different time.
When Nancy Floyd Haworth became ill with breast cancer in the late 1980s, the diagnosis was “grim,” says Jody Parrish, administrator for the Nancy Floyd Haworth Foundation.
“Most people didn’t talk about it, people looked at you with pity, and people who had the diagnosis thought they were going to die.”
And many of them did, including Haworth, a local top-producing Realtor, who died in 1989 at age 42, leaving behind three small children, a husband, parents and siblings.
The following year, her family established the Nancy Floyd Haworth Memorial Breast Cancer Lectureship and Luncheon, which later became the Nancy Floyd Haworth Foundation. The mission of both was, and is, to provide breast cancer education and support to New Mexicans.
This year, the foundation will be hosting the “22nd Celebration of Hope,” a series of educational seminars and a fundraising benefit luncheon on April 14 at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Spa.
The seminars include “What’s New in Breast Cancer,” hosted by a panel of medical professionals; and “Look Good and Feel Great: Take a Look at Me Now,” a sharing of inspirational stories and a fashion show featuring breast cancer survivors as models.
Jump ahead a couple of decades since Haworth was first diagnosed and the progress made in diagnostics and treatment is profound, says Dr. Diana Weber, a breast cancer surgeon with Presbyterian Medical Group and moderator of the medical panel on breast cancer.
“There are a lot of options for treatment,” thanks to more public awareness, open discussion and advances in research, technology, surgical procedures and medications, she says. “Your breast cancer is not your mother’s breast cancer.”
Heading the list of advancements, she says, is improved and more widespread screening and early diagnosis through mammography. “We’re also identifying people at higher risk using genetic testing, which is especially important in families where breast cancer runs high. We’ve also found that there are things that can lower a person’s risk, like eating a low-fat diet, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol intake.”
Research into the role of hormones on breast cancer has also yielded some interesting information.
Breast cancer is often “hormonally driven,” Weber says. The female hormone estrogen in particular has been found to stimulate cancer cells and there are some newer “hormone blocker” medications on the market.
There are also new “targeted” chemotherapies using monoclonal antibodies “to go after cancer cells only without damaging healthy cells,” and new high-tech radiation delivery machines “so we can do shorter courses and better targeting.”
Another tool in the treatment arsenal is the ability to test tissue to determine “if the particular patient’s cancer is amenable to chemotherapy,” Weber says. The tests help doctors avoid overtreating patients who are not likely to derive any significant advantage from chemotherapy.
On the surgical front, there are less invasive procedures and protocols. Lumpectomies are done in conjunction with radiation therapy “to complete the treatment for the entire breast,” Weber says. Surgeons now remove only a few lymph nodes to quickly test for cancerous cells, the absence of which can mean sparing of the remaining lymph nodes.
Where more radical mastectomies are necessary, doctors can often do reconstruction as part of the same surgery, depending on the patient’s general health, body fat and other factors, she says.
Bottom line, “breast cancer is a highly survivable cancer.”
And that’s something to which the women participating in the “Look Good and Feel Great” fashion show can attest.
The models are all women who were diagnosed and treated anywhere from 5 to 30 years ago, “and they’re all absolutely gorgeous and vibrant,” says Jeri Loeber, a co-chair of the seminar and luncheon and a retired oncology research nurse.
“We wanted newly diagnosed women, and women currently in treatment, to see that there is life after breast cancer, that you don’t lose your femininity and you’re still a beautiful person.”
That’s how model Joyce Smalley-McDonagh feels. She had a breast cancer diagnosis in 2006 and a recurrence in 2008.
Her first treatment involved a lumpectomy; with the recurrence, she opted for a bilateral mastectomy – removal of both breasts. When one of the incisions would not heal properly for a full year, “I had it closed surgically,” she says. “I didn’t have reconstructive surgery because I didn’t have enough fat on my body and I’m diabetic. I couldn’t wear prosthetics for a year because of the hole in my chest, so I just got used to not wearing them.”
Smalley-McDonagh, 63, who had bouts with colon cancer and skin cancer years before, says that “being healthy was a whole lot more important than my body image.” Consequently, she doesn’t dwell on her wardrobe.
“There are some things I won’t wear anymore, and once in a while with some cocktail dresses I have to wear a prosthetic.”
Her participation in the fashion show will hopefully demonstrate that “you can look good and feel great about your body even though you’ve had to go through this procedure and have experienced a loss,” she says. “Do what makes you feel good. There’s no right or wrong. You are still the same beautiful you.”