Social Encore: Thinking pink for breast cancer
BY JERMEL-LYNN QUILLOPO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
A hint of pink in October can only mean one thing — Breast Cancer Awareness Month is back.
Personally, I’ve known so many people affected by cancer. My grandma, Betty Ursulum, was diagnosed a few years ago and was able to beat it through radiation, surgery and chemotherapy.
My best friends have also experienced first-hand how it feels to be affected by it. My best friend, Rachel Toyer Aubrey, has seen it among her mother’s side of her family. Her maternal grandmother was diagnosed at a fairly young age and later had a mastectomy. She went into remission for many years, but the cancer came back in another area of her body and she died in 2009. In addition, a cousin with breast cancer died in 2007.
Even Toyer Aubrey’s mother, Glenda Toyer, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Sept. 2001. She was 35 years old when doctors told her the cancer was at stage two. At the time of her mother’s diagnosis, Toyer Aubrey was in high school and remembered feeling a bunch of emotions at once.
“Admittedly I didn’t deal with my mother’s cancer in the best way,” she said. “I was in high school and dealing with all the high school woes. I wish I would’ve been more support to her emotionally.”
Toyer was strong throughout the entire treatment process and continued to live her life, never letting the cancer diminish her role as a mother.
“She didn’t use the cancer as an excuse not to live her life,” Toyer Aubrey said. “In between chemo treatments, she would work her job as a 911 dispatcher for the police department,” she said. “She had every reason to give up and to let her quality of life diminish, but she didn’t. She remained hopeful and faithful through it all, and I’m pretty sure she did it for my sister and I.”
Coping with breast cancer is always the hardest part. Luckily for Toyer Aubrey, her extended family along with friends inside and outside of church lent a helping hand. Whether it was to give a ride or provide a meal, she said her family realized who were really there for them.
Toyer Aubrey said her mother had her own way of coping with cancer and noticed it one night when she came home after a concert. It was late and her mom was shaving her head. Since chemo causes hair loss, Toyer Aubrey’s mom decided to shave before it could get patchy.
Mortified at what her mom was doing at the time, she said it’s clear now how her mom was trying to soothe her own soul.
“Through the entire cancer process, my mother tried to stay one step ahead of what was happening to her, and I guess that is how she coped,” she said.
Another best friend of mine, Melissa Peneyra, can relate to Toyer. She also comes from a family repeatedly affected by breast cancer. In 1996, Peneyra’s mother, Imelda Peneyra, was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer.
Peneyra’s mother is her family’s anchor, and at the time of her diagnosis she was also taking care of Peneyra’s father, who was also battling cancer that had come out of remission. At 16 years old, she didn’t know where to turn.
“I did not want to think about the possibility of being 16 years old without any parents,” she said. “Like anyone else, I was scared and confused.”
Peneyra said her mom was always selfless, taking care of others and her family before thinking of herself. Fortunately, the cancer was found early enough where she was able to get a mastectomy within weeks of her diagnosis. Her focus was to remove this cancer and never skip a beat in taking care of her family. She even scheduled her surgery during the holidays so the family would be available to help and be home to support each other.
“Despite her recovery time and my dad’s ailing health, she remained so positive,” said Peneyra. “You honestly could never tell that she had cancer. There were times she had to adjust physically and emotionally after having the mastectomy, but she knew that it was for the best.”
Since Peneyra had to deal with two parents with cancer, she said that she had to grow up faster than planned. However, she knew she had to do what was necessary to do what her mother had been doing all along and that was to keep the family together.
“My brother and I couldn’t idly sit by and have my sickly dad take care of my mom … we took care of each other,” she said. “The things you think you only have to do for your parents when you are much older, became a reality for us.”
Both mothers had to go through intensive treatments that included radiation, chemotherapy, surgery and extensive medication. Both mothers are in remission; Peneyra’s mother has been cancer-free for 17 years. Both believe breast cancer brought their families even closer and allowed them to communicate more openly.
“Our outlook on life is clear, and we are all able to see the bigger picture,” said Toyer Aubrey. “I believe we all feel like there isn’t any trial to great or small, living life means learning how to deal with the positive and the negative.”
Peneyra said even though many people don’t want to think of the negative possibilities about breast cancer, there is no way to avoid it.
“The biggest piece of information that no one wants to hear is if the cancer will kill,” she said. “I respect how open my family is in sharing this information regardless of how scary it is.”
Early detection is key and both said women everywhere need to be proactive about their health. By looking at her family history, Peneyra knows she is more vulnerable and has been aware of her health by doing regular self exams and scheduling regular doctor visits.
But just because breast cancer does not run in your family doesn’t mean you are safe. Krista Ray of Honolulu went for her first mammogram at 42 years old with no prior family history of breast cancer.
A day before her military husband was set to deploy, doctors called to break the news that she had stage one breast cancer. Her doctors believed the cancer was caused by environmental factors; Peneyra said awareness and taking care of yourself by making healthy choices all play a role in prevention.
“Breast cancer is scary, but if you have the will, anyone can get through it,” said Peneyra.
Toyer said, “I would want others to know that breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence, and that your attitude can truly be the difference in whether you survive or thrive.”
“Go and get your mammogram, it saved my family and it could save yours,” added Ray.
You can show your support for breast cancer awareness on Saturday, Oct. 12, at “Smash-Up,” a mom’s night out celebrating breast cancer awareness with Moms in Hawaii. The same night, the Hawaii chapter of the American Cancer Society hosts “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.” And on Sunday, Oct. 20, the 19th annual “Susan G. Komen Race for The Cure” returns to Honolulu.
Jermel-Lynn Quillopo is a multi-faceted, energetic individual with experience in both print and broadcast journalism. “Social Encore” aims to tell diverse stories about Hawaii’s food, events and people; share your tips with Jermel via email or follow her on Twitter.