Not too long ago, I had my first real brush with the possibility of breast cancer. It was a crazy afternoon and I was racing to get to my annual check-up with my gynecologist. I was late. Traffic was terrible. I was regretting that I had tried to squeeze in a work-out on the way. And of course, I had to be home by 4pm to relieve my babysitter.
So with all of that running through my head, I wasn't really paying attention to the exam until the doc said she found an unusual lumpy section in one of my breasts. What? The next thing I knew, she was telling me to schedule a mammogram as soon as possible and that she knew some really great breast surgeons in town. Come again? I was having trouble processing what she was saying. I kept saying to myself, I'm just here for the usual pap. Must have me confused with someone else. I'm a healthy mom of 18-month-old twins.
Long story short, after two weeks of total stress and tests, it ended up being a false alarm. But what really rattled me was that I had not spotted the lump in question myself. I hadn't really taken the time to do regular self-breast exams. And like me, I imagine that many women believe they are just to busy or too young or too whatever to make the time to spend a few minutes each month.. It took a wake-up call to get me to finally pay more attention.
Today kicks off Breast Cancer Awareness Month and my weekly e-zine, The Well Mom, is putting breast cancer front and center -- to raise awareness, to honor the memories of brave women who lost their battles and to salute the legions of survivors who are soldiering on. Throughout my research, I have heard from the most inspiring women who are working to help find a cure and to comfort those who are sick and in treatment. This month, I will introduce you to some of them. Here is a story of a mother who faced down breast cancer and found an unusual way to help others fighting the disease:
Breast cancer is no laughing matter. But Kim Newlen couldn't help herself from trying to lighten the mood for her family, even as she recovered from a mastectomy and embarked on months of chemotherapy and radiation. She told everyone she was a new member of "The Bald and The Breastless," took her daughter wig shopping and came home sporting a Shania Twain "do" and set her energies on maintaining normalcy for her family.
"One of the best things (for your family) is if you can at least look better than you feel. And that was the most important for my family. If mom looks okay, then it is some therapy," says 51-year-old Newlen whose surgery took place less than a week after her diagnosis five years ago.
While Newlen says her faith helped her keep a sense of humor, she found it difficult to look the way she wanted. Getting dressed after the surgery was a challenge, especially the first week home from the hospital.
"I wore my bathrobe home because I had nothing to wear. I did not want to go anywhere because I had nothing to wear. I certainly didn't feel like shopping. I ended up wearing an old swimsuit under a dress for my first outing," she recalls.
Newlen was desperate to buy clothing that was loose and modest enough to be comfortable, yet fashionable enough that she could actually feel good wearing it out of the house. And she wanted something that was easy to slip on and off through all the seemingly endless trips to the doctor for her cancer treatments.
"It would take me longer to get dressed (after an appointment) than it took them to radiate my breast," she laughs.
The industrious mom, who says she tirelessly drew on her eyebrows and applied lipstick every day during treatment, didn't want to wait around. Instead, she designed exactly what she needed - a pretty camisole that could be worn under a blazer or alone, that could be easily taken off and could even comfortably carry the unsightly post-surgery drains that often frustrate mastectomy patients. The brand name was simple: "Look Better Than You Feel."
After a neighbor helped her sew a rough prototype, she enlisted the help of a Broadway costume designer to develop a product to take to market. She and her husband invested their life savings into the business that is now serving breast cancer patients and hospitals in and around her hometown of Richmond, VA. The Look Better Than You Feel costs $75 and can be billed to Medicare and insurance companies as a post-surgical garment.
"You can wear it hospital to home, street to sleep and every doctor's visit in between," says Newlen who also spends time running the Christian service organization she founded, SweetMonday.
Newlen just went through her second reconstruction surgery and says she still wears her camisoles. She has been heartened to hear from other survivors who are using the garments. She says the sweetest reward is knowing that she is helping to make women's lives easier when they are down in the trenches and trying to be strong for their families.
"As a mother, your hear your cancer diagnosis and you hear it for your children and your family and you realize, now you have to add on a whole new job to your life," she says, "I want to simplify things for those moms."
For more inspirational stories and tips on motherhood and the pursuit of wellness in mind, body and spirit, please sign up for my weekly email/ezine, The Well Mom (www.thewellmom.com).