Reports from a New Cancer Battlefield

An original article by Sarah Weddington. Austin American-Statesman, April 22, 2001.

Dr. Weddington published the following article in the Austin American-Statesman on April 22, 2001. Since its publication, she had surgery to remove the cancer. She decided to participate in a study to compare effectiveness and quality-of-life issues between different chemotherapy standards of treatment for breast cancer. She began chemotherapy at the beginning of June, and had treatments every three weeks until Thanksgiving after that she underwent radiation through January, 2002. She looks forward to celebrating a cancer-free 2002!

I have many labels that I worked hard to achieve. First woman elected from Austin/Travis County to the Texas Legislature. Winning attorney, Roe v. Wade. First woman General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Assistant to the President of the United States (Jimmy Carter). But I have a new label l wish weren't true: breast cancer patient. The first week of April I unwillingly joined the march of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Every day contained increasingly bad news. A self-exam revealed something different in the right breast. My primary physician, Isabel Hoverman, ordered me to her office immediately and predicted a mass of 3 plus centimeters. Off I went to St. David's for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultra scan if necessary. It was necessary, and my tension was mounting. The report indicated a problem, and I was soon on a surgeon's table for a biopsy. Still, the report was a shock: high grade ductal carcinoma. My first reaction was to run away. Two joys for me are travel and sharing information. I've carried my fast-duplicating cancer cells with me to do both and now must submit to the changes in my life that are imminent. First I opted to go on a long planned 5-day adventure to Paris with two wonderful women friends who laugh often and well. One cancer book is First You Cry; but I am determined to mix laughter with the tears.

United Airlines cancelled our flight from Dulles to Paris, we finally arrived to discover a cold and rainy scene instead of the "April in Paris" vision that Maurice Chevalier's song brings to mind. It was a great trip anyway. We attended a reception in City Hall with the new Mayor, rode the huge ferris wheel located near where Marie Antoinette lost her head, went to artist Claude Monet's house and garden at Giverny my where the spring flowers were lush and a riot of colors, and enjoyed the sights and foods of Paris. My reading for the trip was The Complete Idiot's Guide to Living with Breast Cancer, information downloaded from The American Cancer Society's website, and The Breast Cancer Survival Guide. (A friend has since given me Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book.) I returned from France with three boxes of fabulous chocolates tucked into my suitcase, one for each of my doctors. I'll be depending on their skills.

Then I was off to see the Mayor of San Francisco, former Texan Willie Brown, and to speak to a group of 5,000 at his conference for women. Their enthusiastic standing ovation will live in my eyes and ears when treatments come. Now I must turn and face the cancer. Tears are sliding down as I type; I wish this were not my fate. And my mind is in a whirl. Will I have radiation and/or chemotherapy first or go straight to surgery? What will it be like to have part of me "missing"? How will my body react to the treatment? Has the cancer spread? How will the doctors know? I give silent thanks for insurance, but what will it cover? What will treatment cost?

I know something about this journey. I returned to Austin from the glitter of Washington, D.C. because my younger sister had breast cancer. I bought the house where I now live because everything essential was on one floor and she could navigate there as opposed to her second-floor apartment in a building with no elevator. The hardest thing for me so far was telling my father. He had two daughters and lost the youngest to cancer. He was to learn that the only one left – the one he depends upon — has been diagnosed with cancer. But I've done it.

This coming battle makes me grateful for the excellent, caring doctors in Austin. One, John Sandbach, is the cancer specialist who cared for my sister and came to her funeral. He will walk this journey with me, too. When I left D.C., I explained to a friend that was coming back to Austin where friends pitch in to help when one is sick. How glad I am for that decision. That friend has already called, as have others, to offer to be with me in the hospital or drive me home after treatments or do whatever else is necessary. Public service does not lead to financial riches, but it has made me rich in friends. One book suggested starting a notebook. I have labeled mine “The Fight." I'm recording my worries, large and small. How will I deal with losing control over my life and having all plans contingent on treatment schedules? How will I look with no hair? Will the fact that the cancer is very near the chest wall make things more difficult?

Women have been told, "Get your mammograms." I did that annually without fail. I was at my doctor's for an annual exam less than a year ago. I would add, "Do those manual exams yourself the first of every month without fail-no matter how busy you are." I was haphazard about that, and I wish I hadn't been.

I am grateful to those who have been working on this disease and to survivors for their guidance. As you read Sunday, I will have a treatment plan and will be preparing for lunch with two survivors, Liz Carpenter, Molly Ivins, and Claire Saxton, the Executive Director of the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin. Their website is Susan G. Komen's website, also has a helpful Guide for Understanding Breast Cancer.

I am starting my slow-motion bungee jump into cancer treatment. I want my experience to have positive results for others; I will report again. In the meantime, wish me luck.