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A few years ago I received a call from my cousin Paula telling me her sister, Mary Beth, had just found out that the breast cancer we thought was cured was back.
The family was devastated, but not bowed. Mary Beth was a fighter - she had beaten back this disease before and we were sure she would do so again.
Then, about two years ago, Paula called again, this time to tell me Mary Beth's doctors had given up, diagnosed her disease as terminal and sent her home.
While I sat on my bed and cried, 200 miles away, Mary Beth was busy making dinner for her kids, preparing the next day's lesson plan for her kindergarten class, running errands and generally getting on with life. Almost two years later she continues to do the same, refusing to stop living just because a gentleman in a white coat told her it was time to do so.
Around the time I learned of the return of Mary Beth's cancer, I registered to participate in my first Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. According to the information they have gathered, one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in our lifetime. I looked at my own family - seven sisters, two sisters-in-law - and realized suddenly that each one of us was one in nine. To me, the odds were staggering.
Breast cancer is uniquely devastating. You don't need to be a chain smoker to be at risk for breast cancer or spend too many years lying in the sun. The only thing you need in order to be at an increased risk for breast cancer is, quite simply, to have breasts.
While there is proof of some genetic connection, only a small percentage of cases are considered to be "hereditary." There have even been a few cases diagnosed in males - after all, men have breasts, too.
When we first moved to town, the mother of one of my son's classmates, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, was in the middle of her first round of chemotherapy. I didn't know her at the time, being new to the community, but I remember seeing her in the parking lot of school and at the cross country meets and other events. She is one of those women who stand out in a crowd; her brilliant smile radiates to her sparkling eyes and her laugh - deep and resounding - is contagious.
I didn't even notice her bald head or her ever-changing wardrobe of baseball caps until weeks later.
Over time, as our children became friends, Maria and I have also gotten to know one another. She and her husband, Rob, are extraordinary people. Open and friendly, warm and welcoming, they are generous of heart and spirit. They donate their time to charitable organizations while raising three respectful, well-behaved sons. They are active in their school communities, have a wide circle of adoring friends and remain close to their extended families.
Fighting a terrifying disease is not an easy task, especially when you are raising children and trying to protect them from the frightening possibilities of cancer. Maria often found herself driving alone to Boston for her treatments, refusing to allow "it" to interrupt her children's lives.
She and Rob discovered anew the strength of their union; their commitment was tested under fire and they have emerged from the fight with a stronger, deeper love for each other than ever before.
Maria and Mary Beth have much to teach us all, not the least of which is humility. They do not perceive themselves to have done anything particularly spectacular - they see only that they are faced with a challenge and have committed themselves to the task of overcoming it, as if doing so was the easiest, most natural thing to do.
Through faith, love and a from-the-gut strength that cannot be measured, they have faced the specter of death with an unblinking eye and have refused to give up on life.
Over the course of the past few years I have completed six Avon breast cancer walks. I have met hundreds of women who have beaten breast cancer with the same tenacity Maria embodies. I have met almost as many who continue to fight the disease with the same unending faith Mary Beth lives by. I could fill a book with the stories I have heard of women who fought till their last breath.
I do not have breast cancer and never have. I have the same chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer that every woman reading this has - one in nine. People frequently ask me why I continue to participate in these grueling, long-distance walks, and there is no single, concise answer. I admit my motivation is primarily selfish. I don't want to lose Mary Beth. I don't want any of my sisters to ever have to wage the battle Maria has. And I never want to have to reassure my children that I will always love them, even if we are not together.
Maria has been blessed with a second chance at life. We don't know what the future holds for Mary Beth. The truth is, none of us knows what lies ahead, but with more reason than most to fear the uncertainties, both of these extraordinary women choose instead to embrace the possibilities.
It is their faith, their hope and strength that lead me to believe just as strongly as they in the possibilities of the future.
Breast cancer is beatable if detected early enough. We cannot be afraid to say the words that will keep us healthy. See your gynecologist annually. Learn how to do a self-breast exam, and then do it. If you are due for a mammogram, get one. If your mother has never had one, take her. If your sister doesn't know where to go, look it up for her. Get your breasts checked.
But even more important, be of good spirit - laugh loudly and often, give generously of yourself, love freely. Honor those who have lost their fight by embracing life. Approach each new day with hope and gratitude.
And never lose sight of the possibilities that life holds for you.
Jennifer Horn is a free-lance writer who lives in Nashua.
© 2003, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire