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Sharon Bader

Sharon Bader, secretary at LeRoy High School and a breast cancer survivor, handed out papers to James Loftus, 13, and his mother, Anita. (The Pantagraph/David Proeber)

LeROY -- Even though it's been 19 years since her breast cancer diagnosis, Sharon Bader remembers everything about the experience.

"It never goes away," said Bader, even after her doctor used the word "cured" for the first time last year.

Perhaps the words she remembers most were the ones delivered after she was diagnosed so long ago.

"The doctor told me I would 'probably be around in 5 years,' " said Bader, of LeRoy.

As the mother of two small children, "those odds weren't good enough."

That prediction, as well as awareness and treatments are among the many things that have changed since Bader's diagnosis.

She was just 39, with no family history of cancer, when her doctor delivered the news that a lump she found was malignant. While there is greater awareness today that breast cancer can strike women at any age, in 1992 both Bader and her doctor were shocked by the diagnosis.

She had found the lump six months earlier, and was told not to worry after neither a mammogram nor aspiration revealed cancer.

Even after Bader had the lump removed as part of another surgical procedure, the medical staff predicted the lump was benign.

Two days later, the doctor called and delivered the news: Bader had cancer, and she should consider going to a hospital in Texas that did a "good job with mastectomies."

"Within a few minutes, it went from it being nothing to going to Texas," Bader said.

She didn't go to Texas, but did have the mastectomy. These days, she said, that probably wouldn't have been necessary.

In 1992, there was no Community Cancer Center in nearby Normal. Instead, Bader sat by herself in the oncologist's office while she got chemo. "The nurse gave me her home phone number so that I would have someone to talk to," Bader said.

During chemotherapy sessions, Bader wore a "cooling cap," aimed at preventing hair loss. It didn't work then, but a similar concept is in clinical trials in the U.S. now.

Bader said the hair loss was more devastating than losing a breast. "I looked sick then," she said.

There was one wig store, and she was taken to a back room to try them on, because the salesperson didn't want Bader to be embarrassed baring her bald head in public view.

Mastectomy supplies were even harder to find, so Bader sewed shoulder pads from a jacket into her bra.

"It's laughable now," she said.

Not knowing any young women survivors also was difficult. "I didn't have anyone to talk to," she said, adding the few women she saw at the oncologist's office were in their 70s and 80s.

Because of that, she is quick to offer support to other women. Cindy Jackson of LeRoy was diagnosed the year after Bader and received Bader's phone number from a mutual friend.

Jackson was 28 when diagnosed and also had two small children.

The two talked about everything from treatments to emotions. "She truly knew what I was feeling," Jackson said.

These days, while much has changed with treatments and technology, the emotions have not.

"No matter what, you still wonder, 'Am I going to die?'" Bader said about the initial reaction to the diagnosis.

Last year, Bader offered support again, when co-worker Kathy Segerstrom was diagnosed with cancer.

The two talked several times, with Bader offering advice about what kinds of shirts to wear and what it's like to live with the surgical scars.

"She was a great support," said Segerstrom.

For Bader, it's even tempting to talk to strang-ers. "If I see a woman in the mall, with no hair, I have to hold back and not hug her and tell her, 'It's OK,' "she said.

"I did it once, and it was well received but I think she thought I was a lunatic," Bader added.

Segerstrom said there is a bond between women who have gone through breast cancer treatment, no matter how long it's been since their diagnoses.

"Nobody else has had to hear those words," she said.

And, Bader said the bonds remain, whether they are one year or 20 years after hearing about it the first time.

"You all have the same fear and hope it's over," she said.

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