By Janeal Downs
When she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer about 20 years ago at the age of 45, diagnosis Vernal Branch’s husband told her he wanted her to be there to watch their grandchildren with him one day. Today, shop she is a breast cancer survivor, stuff advocate and the grandmother of six grandchildren. “I’ve reached a milestone in my life and I am just blessed, very very blessed.” Now she serves as the Public Policy manager of the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation, a position she has held for five years.
Originally from Winston Salem, N.C., Branch has lived in Richmond for 13 years. She previously lived in California where she was diagnosed. When diagnosed, she had recently moved from Texas and had a lot of family support in California but not as many friends in the new state. She said she did have the support of her husband and sons. “I think their strength in taking care of me and as my caregivers was what really helped me to survive and to get better and just lots of phone calls,” Branch said. Later, she also received support from people from one of her son’s high schools, as they started to rally around her.
When asked what advice she would offer to women, and possibly men, who currently suffer with the disease, she recommended for them to make sure they get all of their facts first; to not rush into any decisions; and get a second opinion, if needed. Branch said it is important to have someone available to go through the whole process. “Sometimes you need someone with you to travel that journey with you and to help you with some of the decisions that you’re going to make,” Branch said. “I think a really good support system is important for a woman or anyone who is going through cancer.”
Eight weeks after her mastectomy, Branch became involved with breast cancer advocacy. She said she realized she needed to take the focus off of her and focus on the big picture. “There were a lot of women who were not surviving, and why were they not surviving?” Branch said. “I realized I had to learn more about this disease, and so that’s what kind of drove me to that activism and learning more about the disease and how it can affect our lives, affect our families.”
Five years after her diagnosis, Branch was denied health insurance because of her pre-existing condition. “I was asked by the White House and the Obamas to come and tell my story, because they were trying to pass the Affordable Care Act,” Branch said. She also appeared in congressional hearings for the same thing. Branch also works with “Every Woman’s Life,” a program through the Virginia Department of Health which offers free breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings for women and even help with treatment. She mentioned how one national law, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act of 2000, does something similar.
The Center for Disease Control states the law was passed Oct. 24, 2000 and “gives states the option to provide medical assistance through Medicaid to eligible women who were screened for and found to have breast or cervical cancer, including precancerous conditions, through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP).”
According to VBCF’s Executive Director Katy Sawyer, there can be a higher incident and mortality rate in African American women and those in the Latino community. She said things such as less access to health care and lack of screenings on an annual basis may be one reason why. Lack of screenings means the cancer can be caught in later stages. With programs like “Every Woman’s Life”, that can be reached at 1-866-EWL-4YOU or 1-866-395-4968, women can be directed to nearby locations for screening.
Sawyer said there has been research which shows at least four hours of exercise a week can lower chances of breast cancer. However, while exercising, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking can lower chances of breast cancer, Sawyer said there is no real prevention for breast cancer. “Your number one risk factor is being born a girl. One in eight women over the course of their lifetime will develop breast cancer so that’s really the biggest risk factor,” she stated.
Sawyer said only five to ten percent of women with breast cancer have been linked to gene or genetic mutations, which means most people do not have a family history. Though she does not have a family history, Sawyer stated that she got involved with VBCF for herself and her daughter. “I love the focus around education and advocacy and really empowering women to make a difference and really take control of their own health,” Sawyer said. “Sometimes I think women are so busy caretaking for other people that they put themselves last and so really the message is empowering them to get screened and take control of their own health outcomes.” According to Sawyer, VBCF follows the American Cancer Society’s model which recommends for women to have annual mammograms after the age of 40. However, she said mammograms are not always the perfect tool and if there is a family history, women should talk to their doctors about getting earlier testing.
Sawyer stated that VBCF was founded by five women who started a support group in 1991. When they saw the lack of research and awareness of breast cancer they planned a Mother’s Day rally, and in October of 1992 officially became a non-profit organization. VBCF does not do specific events in October which is recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness month, because so many other organizations do. However, she said they are so busy sending out educational packages, such as their pink ribbon education cards, October is one of their busier months. On their website, they do list events that are occurring in the month and also a chance to donate in ways such as buying a Pink Ribbon License Plate. Sawyer said there are about 10 thousand of these license plates on the road. More information about breast cancer, events, and VBCF can be found on www.vbcf.org.
What Are the Symptoms?
Different people have different warning signs for breast cancer. Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all. A person may find out they have breast cancer after a routine mammogram.
Some warning signs of breast cancer are—
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
- Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
- Pain in any area of the breast.
Keep in mind that some of these warning signs can happen with other conditions that are not cancer.
If you have any signs that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.