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When Mom Has Cancer

Published on: September 19, 2011

Breast Cancer Exposed!

In 2002, Medina resident Mary Alhadeff was a busy mother with a preschooler and 18-month-old twins when she learned she had a rare form of breast cancer.

“The day I found out,” she recalls, “I looked at my babies and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I just don’t know what’s around the corner.’”

Although stunned, she immersed herself in research, spoke to five oncologists, and helped drive her own treatment. “I tried to understand what I could be doing and I chose to go the more aggressive route.”

Alhadeff’s thirst for knowledge and understanding also motivated her to put her support behind the Breast Cancer Exposed! (BCE!) fundraiser that was held at Seattle's Fairmont Olympic hotel on September 21. Sponsored by Seattle Chapter Hadassah, the event raised money for cancer research and treatment at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

Why would a Seattle community gather to raise funds for an overseas organization like Hadassah?  More than one speaker at the event, including keynote speaker Jessica Queller, a television writer and producer with credits on such popular shows as Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl,  emphasized that the research and treatment at Hadassah has implications for humanity as a whole.

Hadassah Medical Organization is not only a leading Middle East treatment center, drawing patients from around the region, but an internationally recognized leader in research on cancer and almost all other diseases.

BCE! attendees were exhorted by more than one speaker about the importance of getting timely cancer screenings. The mantra “knowledge is power” was repeated over and over. At one point in the evening, everyone with an immediate family member who had cancer was asked to stand up. More than two-thirds of the 300-plus audience rose.

“It’s not just an event, but a campaign,” says Alhadeff, who served as the event’s honorary chair. The BCE! event also aimed to educate women about the need for regular cancer screening and breast checks and to honor how breast cancer survivors have preserved their feminine spirit.

Now cancer-free, Alhadeff and her husband have had a fourth child, a girl. “Having breast cancer makes you slow down and look at your children's beautiful faces and into their eyes and appreciate every minute. I feel very lucky… I feel strong, and I feel very blessed and grateful.”

BCE! attendees also heard quite a bit about the BRCA gene, the so-called “breast cancer gene,” which was discovered at the University of Washington. Carriers have a greatly increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers and are often advised to have both breasts and ovaries removed as a preventive measure.

While found in all populations, the BRCA mutation occurs more frequently in Jews of Eastern European, or Ashkenazic, descent. Newer studies are finding higher rates of the gene in Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jewish populations, and now there is evidence that male carriers are subject to higher rates of prostate cancer.

“I’m an Ashkenazic Jew,” keynote speaker Queller shared with the crowd. A BRCA gene carrier whose mother died of ovarian cancer, Queller describes how she coped with the knowledge about the genetic mutation she carries in her book Pretty Is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene and How I Defied My Destiny.

Surviving for the sake of the children is a constant theme when moms have breast cancer. “I was never going to let my children grow up without a mother the way I had to,” said one BRCA carrier and mother of three interviewed on film for the event. Having lost her mother and grandmother to breast cancer, she chose to have her breasts, ovaries, and uterus removed.

Michelle Sloan is a local BRCA carrier currently being treated for stage IV cancer at Swedish Cancer Institute. She concurs that doing everything to survive for the kids is of paramount importance. “I have two incredible kids…why wouldn’t I want to keep doing this stuff [treatment]?” says the mom of two teenage sons. “This is something big that’s going on in my life. Why wouldn’t I want to know, why wouldn’t I want to be more in control of it?”

Sloan challenges women to take the necessary steps to prevent breast cancer. “Go get a mammogram – do it,” says Sloan. “Get your regular yearly exam with your gynecologist, and don’t be afraid. It’s not scary.”

Within two days of the BCE! event, organizers had already heard from women who had been inspired to schedule mammograms and BRCA testing. “I actually decided to go get tested [as] too many indicators point towards a positive diagnosis for me,” wrote one woman with multiple immediate family members with cancer. “I think last night did it for me, so I called my OBG this morning and made an appointment.”

Diana Brement is a Seattle-area journalist, editor, and poet. She writes a regular human-interest column, Member of the Tribe, for the JTNews, Washington state's Jewish community newspaper.

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