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Cancer can strike you, survivor says

Posted - Oct. 29, 2004 at 8:20 a.m.



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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Millions of moms know her as the creator of Baby Einstein, but children's video guru Julie Aigner-Clark wants to reach women on another topic: breast cancer.

"I think it's so important women know this happens to healthy, younger women," she said in a recent interview at her home near Denver.

"Women need to know this. Women need to be doing breast exams."

If Aigner-Clark sounds adamant, it's because she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly eight months ago. She was 37, fit and on top of the world, having sold her company to Disney in 2001 for a reported $25 million.

"I had no reason to believe that this would happen to me," she said.

An estimated 216,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Aigner-Clark realizes that beyond the pink ribbons and fun-runs that mark October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she's in a unique position to educate women that it can happen to them.

That's because many women feel connected with Aigner-Clark from her friendly chatter at the end of "Baby Mozart," "Baby Van Gogh" and the many other videos she made to expose infants and toddlers to classical music, foreign languages and the arts. She's often approached by people who recognize not just her face, but her voice.

"They sort of know me because of Baby Einstein, so it becomes more personal," she said.

Aigner-Clark, a former schoolteacher-turned-multimillionaire, comes off as a friend even to strangers. She answers the door in shorts and bare feet, offering a warm handshake, a wide smile and later, a hug.

Over coffee, she describes how she fought breast cancer, acknowledging the treatment she chose wouldn't be right for everyone.

She opted for a double mastectomy.

"I'm really, really, really happy with my decision," she said.

TINY LUMP NOTICED

Aigner-Clark first noticed a tiny lump in her left breast on a Friday in February, during a film editing session for a video series aimed at elementary-age children.

She was working with her right arm tucked under her left armpit when she felt the nodule. She didn't think much of it and left for a weekend conference in Florida.

When she returned to Colorado on Monday night, she noticed it again. She marked the spot with a green Sharpie and phoned her doctor in the morning.

After a mammogram the next day, a Wednesday, she was told to go straight to her doctor's office.

No one explained the urgency to her, but it wasn't difficult to figure out.

"I'm driving to her office with these (mammogram) films, and I just burst into tears."

Her doctor scheduled a biopsy. By Friday, one week after finding the lump, she had her diagnosis. Although her lump was small, its cell structure showed it had the potential to be aggressive.

A mammogram in June 2003 had indicated nothing wrong.

"You're suddenly making all these calls to doctors, and you can't believe it's you," she said. "Of course, your mind is going crazy.

"The hard part was telling the girls, and it was really important to me not to scare them," she said of daughters Aspen, 9, and Sierra, 7.

"I never cried in front of my kids."

She was terrified, although she put on a brave face.

"Cancer for me ... I felt like a suicide bomber had got on my bus. All of a sudden I'm attacked by something I never knew was there. I was so emotional the first couple of days. I was so frightened."

She went on www.breastcancer.org for information. She bought Lance Armstrong's book, "It's Not About the Bike," which chronicles the cyclist's successful battle against testicular cancer.

She felt a great need to talk with other women. "I went through a phase where the only people I wanted to talk to were people with breast cancer."

RADICAL TREATMENT

She decided in just days what she wanted to do.

"My doctor said most women would probably have a lumpectomy, and I said, `I want a double mastectomy.'

"I said, `I never want this to happen to me again.'

"For me, it was ... get me on the table and get this out of me. I couldn't have surgery fast enough."

Her breasts were removed March 11, less than two weeks after her diagnosis.

Aigner-Clark said none of her family or friends openly questioned her decision, wondering if it was too rash. "But I had a couple of oncologists question it," she said. Both thought it was a radical step, she said.

She said her husband, Bill, supported her decision.

"He was so beyond breasts mattering," she said.

"He has told me that he was so proud that I was able to make a decision not based on aesthetics - but based on I want to be around for my children, that I as a woman wasn't so tied to that part of my womanhood that I couldn't give it up."

Bill Clark offered emotional support but also tended to his wife's physical recovery, changing her bandages and dressings.

"He never cringed, never looked away. Breast cancer really demonstrated for me how much I love my husband," Aigner-Clark said.

WORKING AGAIN

Aigner-Clark decided to undergo reconstructive surgery, which she said makes her feel good about herself. All the surgeries haven't slowed her, though.

"I really wanted to maintain some kind of normalcy in my kids' life," she said.

She drives the girls' school car pool twice a week and recently returned from a family horseback-riding vacation.

She's also back to work on her video, "The Safe Side" - a collaboration with John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted."

The video, filmed in Los Angeles just a month before her diagnosis, centers on stranger danger, although the word "stranger" is never used.

When she founded Baby Einstein, Aigner-Clark was looking to expose her then-young daughters to the arts.

Now, as her children have grown, her focus has changed to protecting them. She said she expects "The Safe Side" to be in stores in early 2005, possibly earlier on the Internet.

She's also working on a project called "Memory Lane" - videos without story lines for people with Alzheimer's. Aigner-Clark described the videos as soothing, with beautiful music and images from key life events, such as holiday scenes.

"They will give people with Alzheimer's joy," she said. "Everyone's working on Alzheimer's drugs, but nobody thinks what it must be like day-to-day for someone with that disease."

Although she's back in the routine of creating videos, doing voice-overs for Disney and raising a family, Aigner-Clark said she feels changed by her cancer experience.

She said it took away her sense of security.

She feels a bond with others who have had cancer, and recently, she and her family participated in a Race for the Cure walk in downtown Denver.

"Even when I'm with my closest friends, even though I love them, there's a part of me they'll never understand," she said.

Aigner-Clark urges women to pay attention to changes in their bodies.

"I just can't stress enough - take everything seriously," she said. "Do breast exams, because if you find it early, you're in a great place."

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(c) 2004, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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