October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is the second-most common cause of cancer-related death in American women. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it is estimated that this year in the United States, some 233,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease, and approximately 40,000 will die of it. If detected early, treatment can save thousands of lives.
During October, physicians and public health officials encourage women who are 40 and older (before age 40 for African-Americans) to speak with their physicians about breast cancer, and the benefits and risks of screening.
Melanie Skeens, a mother of two from Frederick, Md., has been part of the Fort Detrick Community since 1989. She worked for 14 years with Child, Youth and School Services, and now works as the outreach coordinator for the Environmental Management Office. Melanie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012.
In this Q-and-A session, Melanie tells about her breast cancer diagnosis and how it changed her life.
Q: When were you diagnosed and what went through your mind when you heard the word cancer?
A: I was diagnosed on July 10, 2012. I was in shock. It wasn’t until I received the results from the surgery that everything really set in. To hear “you have advanced stage breast cancer that spread to your lymph nodes” is not something anyone ever prepares for or thinks will happen to them. Immediately, I started thinking the worst. “What about my kids, my family, my friends?” “Am I going to make it through this?” But I realized I had a lot to fight for, family and friends that were there for me and counting on me, so I put on my boxing gloves and fought like hell.
Q: What do you think kept your spirits up while you were fighting for life?
A: I am still fighting, but going through all the surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, pain, etc., it was extremely difficult to remain positive. It was a daily struggle, and some days I felt uncharacteristically defeated. But I realized that there was a plan for me, a plan bigger than any of us can see, and that all of this is just a tiny piece to a giant puzzle. I didn’t walk this journey alone. I was fortunate to have the support of so many people, support from my immediate family, all of my friends and my work family. I was able to remain positive because of their love and support. I will be forever grateful to everyone who fought this battle with me. The amount of support I received from the Fort Detrick Community was astounding. Everyone at Fort Detrick made sure my spirits were up, and stayed up through this entire process. Simple things such as daily phone calls, cards, and care packages, all the way to donated leave, made all the difference, and I could not have done it without them. I will be forever grateful to everyone here, my son Kyler, my daughter Brandi, my parents and especially my friends Kristen Haga, Michelle Morales, Susan Treadwell, Stacey Sumner and my “Pink Sister” Krista McKenzie McElwain. They put on their boxing gloves and made sure I didn’t fight this battle alone. Their love and support kept me strong.
Q: What have you learned through this process?
A: As ironic as this sounds, I treat this whole process as a blessing. I was chosen to fight this battle and through it I have learned to embrace life, family and friends. I’ve learned to live life to the fullest, in the present moment, and appreciate all the little things that so many people take for granted. Don’t let life pass you by.
Q: What would you like to say to others that may have a friend or family member going through cancer or to someone who just got the diagnosis themselves?
A: For those that may know someone going through any kind of battle, cancer or otherwise: not everyone is willing to talk about their battle, but you can be there for them in so many ways. Reach out to them and be there for them in any and every way possible. No one should have to walk the journey alone. There are so many ways you can reach out and help, to include phone calls, cards, meals, fundraisers, car rides, etc. From the moment someone is diagnosed, it is an overwhelming experience, comprised of lots of appointments and huge financial burdens, and to have the support from those around you makes all the difference in the world. To someone battling cancer, I would say keep your head up and no matter what, stay positive, you’re not alone. There is an incredible “Sisterhood” out there. You may not be ready to talk about it, but reach out to your friends, family, church, doctors, support groups, etc., so many people are willing and ready to fight this fight with you. You don’t have to do it alone. Fifteen months, numerous surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapies later this fight is still not over for me, but I am now able to say I am cancer-free. I am fortunate enough to call myself a “Survivor.” Early detection is the key, I cannot stress enough to get on-time, regular mammograms.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Living what I learned. Living life to the fullest, in the present moment, and appreciating all the little things life has to offer. Something I’m very excited about is, next month, I start training to become a mentor through the Survivors Outreach Support Program through Frederick Memorial Hospital. I want to offer support to women currently going through treatment for breast cancer. I hope to make a difference in someone’s life, and their treatments the way my friends, family and co-workers were through mine. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same. Remember, early detection is imperative and although October is tagged as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, detection, prevention and awareness should remain prevalent all year.