Strength in numbers: Two-time breast cancer survivor encouraged by support

It seems we often define life by numbers.

Take, for example, the birth of a baby. I’ve experienced this phenomenon twice now and know that as soon as that baby proves that his lungs work, doctors want to know how much he weighs and how long he is from head to toe.

As the mom, I just want to know that he has 10 fingers and 10 toes.

The government identifies us by a 9-digit number. Many everyday conversations revolve around numbers: “How old are you?” “How many kids do you have?” “What was the final score of the game last night?” “How much did you pay for those great shoes?”

Numbers, numbers, numbers. My husband seems to find amusement in reminding me of the fact that I’ll be 40 this year.

All of our Pink Zone goals are defined by numbers: We hope to net $250,000 from our fundraising efforts, we plan to welcome more than 550 breast cancer survivors to the game, and we want more than 13,500 fans in those stands.

But numbers take on a whole new meaning when you get the opportunity to talk to someone who has battled breast cancer. I learned this quickly after having the privilege to speak to Joanne Brougher.

Check out these numbers.

In 1963, when Joanne was just 22 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer after discovering a lump in one of her breasts. She was told she had an 80 percent chance of survival.

Thirty-three years later, after a routine mammogram, she found out she had breast cancer a second time when it was discovered in the other breast.

She is one of three generations of women in her family who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother was diagnosed in 1973 and sadly lost her battle with the disease. Her daughter was diagnosed in 2006 and plans to stand side-by-side with her mom at midcourt on Feb. 24 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Today, Joanne is a 50-year, two-time breast cancer survivor.

These are some compelling numbers and there is much to be learned from Joanne’s story.

People certainly got breast cancer in 1963, but people did not talk about breast cancer in 1963.

“I felt like I was in a lake all by myself,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone. When seeing my friends, many didn’t know how to react or what to say.”

Joanne also struggled with her initial prognosis. She thought that while she may not have been too upset by an 80 percent on a test in school, it still was not ideal.

Eighty percent seems like a different number when you’re using it to evaluate your life versus your knowledge of U.S. states and their capitals.

Joanne took it all in stride.

“I had to except it and be positive about it,” she said.

So one major surgery and 24 radiation treatments later, Joanne settled into life in Enola to begin what she calls “my journey of healing.”

Part of that journey led her to a new marriage and a high-risk pregnancy that doctors suggested she terminate due to risks involved to her as a result of hormone changes in her system. Joanne made the decision to continue the pregnancy and welcomed a beautiful daughter she named Janice.

Looking back, Joanne finds irony in the fact that doctors were worried about the risk to her during her pregnancy. Never did she imagine that years down the road she would discover it was she who put her daughter at risk once she learned of Janice’s breast cancer diagnosis.

In 1996, Joanne retired after working for 33 years at the Navy Supply Depot in Mechanicsburg. That same year, she found out her cancer was back in her other breast.

“I was angry,” she said. “I felt I had already paid my dues.”

Joanne underwent a modified mastectomy with no radiation or chemotherapy and once again she was a survivor. Joanne’s toughest moment along her journey was the day she learned of her daughter’s diagnosis.

Janice was married on July 1, 2006. By November of that same year, she was navigating her own path as a breast cancer patient.

“The hardest thing for me was when they told me my daughter had breast cancer,” Joanne remembers. But she also found strength and inspiration in the way her daughter battled the disease. “She never wore a wig. She either went bald or wore a hat. She was beautiful.”

What is most remarkable to me is the resilience that grows from all these once devastating numbers. It’s a sentiment that seems to echo with many cancer survivors, and Joanne’s story is no different in that respect.

She shared this message: “People look at breast cancer as a death sentence, and it’s not. I have been blessed through my whole experience. I didn’t choose to have cancer, but having it has opened so many doors for me. I have met so many wonderful people. Joining a support group has given me a chance to give to others. Giving is a rewarding gift. My cup has always been half full, never half empty.”

Here is my message to Joanne: When we all come together on Feb. 24 to cheer on the Lady Lions and honor the hundreds of breast cancer survivors at the Pink Zone game, I hope for a split second you recall that lonely feeling that overwhelmed you in 1963. Then, I hope you take a long look around the Bryce Jordan Center and remember that now you are not alone.

There is strength in numbers.

Miriam Powell is the executive director of Pennsylvania Pink Zone. She can be reached at mpowell@ athletics.psu.edu