Breast Cancer Story and a Suspicious Mammogram

Ethel “Billie” Kilbourn is 87 years old and a five year survivor of breast cancer. Called back in 1999 for additional imaging after a suspicious mammogram, she still vividly recalls the ultrasound technologist casually announcing “you have breast cancer.”

Her entire life, Billie had been concerned and frightened that she might develop breast cancer. Feeling that her best defense against this disease was appropriate surveillance, she had been faithful in pursuing her annual mammograms. So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 80’s, she was grateful for her vigilance and for the fact that it was diagnosed early.

By the time she actually developed breast cancer she had the perspective of one who has experienced great joys and sorrows with unique grace. She had experienced the Great Depression, several wars, the raising of two children, the early loss of a sister and a daughter in law. Her mammograms had become, by that time, a necessary inconvenience.

Diagnosed with Stage I infiltrating ductal carcinoma, she went on to have a lumpectomy, axillary node dissection and radiation therapy. Her surgeon and medical oncologist cared for her as a person with warmth and concern for her well being and the well being of her family as she moved through treatment. She did not feel unduly alarmed – she felt then and remains confident that she has received the best of care. Her most significant concern was whether or not her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment would interfere with caring for her ailing husband. She was determined that it would not.

Billie had surgery and radiation therapy, followed by Tamoxifen. A strong believer in complementary care, she drank soy milk to help with her hot flashes. When her bone density, which had been well maintained on hormone replacement therapy, began to decline off of HRT – she took Fosamax.

Billie is very clear that she wants to be fully informed about her health and necessary treatment options. She wants as little interference with her body’s natural process as possible. She has been an educated consumer of health care services receiving the best advice available, gathering information, and making the decisions that make sense to her.

Although her beloved husband died of a stroke over three years ago, she feels blessed to have experienced a great love and a wonderful family life together with their daughter and son. She describes many occurrences in life as more challenging than her breast cancer – recovery from a fractured hip, the loss of her sister, the longing for lost loved ones and friends.

Billie is active and full of the joy and laughter of life – with the desire to share her love and concern for others. For her, breast cancer was the smallest thing on her plate and at the same time a potent reminder to remember life’s blessings and continually cultivate a sense of perspective. She feels that one of the most important guideposts in all of life, including dealing with breast cancer, is to confront your losses, make peace with them, and then to live life fully with an appreciation formed by the understanding of loss and the inevitability of change.

Posted: February 2005