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They are not just statistics; they are my sisters

by Matt Harvey

ASS'T MANAGING EDITOR

Breast cancer, according to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women ages 40-59. One out of nine women will develop breast cancer, according to the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations.

Maybe those numbers don't mean much to you. I know such numbers never meant a whole lot to me, at least not until recently.

So today, as my very tiny contribution to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let me put a face on it for you. Actually, two faces.

One is my sister Martina's. The other is my sister Sally's.

Martina, a schoolteacher who is in her 50s, has been treated for very rare -- and very deadly -- inflammatory breast cancer for two years. Sally, a hairdresser who is a few years older than Martina, has been treated for a more common, but still serious, form of breast cancer for several months.

When my four living sisters posed for a snapshot with a cousin in front of this Midwestern cornfield, they weren't thinking about how breast cancer might drastically change their lives. Martina and Sally were probably thinking about playing together, about what Mom was going to cook that night, about when Dad was coming home or about how unlucky they were not to have a brother (yet). Well, maybe not the last part.

They surely weren't thinking about breast cancer as they moved away from home, went to school, started careers, married and raised children.

The numbers probably didn't mean that much to them then. But they do now.

Both have suffered through treatments. Both have suffered through all the doubts that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Both have studied long and hard about breast cancer, have talked with others with the disease and now likely know almost as much about it as some family doctors. They've learned how important it is for women over 40 to insist on yearly mammograms, and for all women to perform monthly self-exams of their breasts. Meanwhile, any delusions of immortality are long gone.

Martina and Sally, as well as my other sisters, Margo and Stephanie, no longer think of the numbers as just numbers. They think of them as sisters, mothers, daughters, wives -- and even on rare occasions, husbands, brothers, sons or fathers (that's right, breast cancer can strike men, too, although not often).

All you need to know about breast cancer would fill up today's paper. If you really want to know more, you can research cancer in detail on the Internet. Or you can ask your family doctor or health department worker lots of questions.

Many of you probably won't. You could care less, as I once did.

That's OK; it's your choice.

Here's hoping you never become another statistic.

But when some of you do -- and the odds are indisputable -- here's wishing you the very best from someone who no longer thinks of you as just another cold, hard, boring statistic.

Assistant Managing Editor Matt Harvey can be reached at (304) 626-1442, or by e-mail at mharvey@exponent-telegram.com

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