My Turn: Standing among cancer survivors

  • Liesl Hasenfuss of Henniker stands with her father, Paul Hasenfuss of Merrimack, and her daughter, Cailin. Liesl’s mother died following a battle with breast cancer. Paul is a breast cancer survivor and Cailin is a survivor of leukemia.

For the Monitor
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Twenty-five years ago, a small group of individuals came together for the first Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk here in Concord, one of the first such events in the country. Earlier that same year, I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was a sophomore in college.

My mother was first diagnosed at 40 and after 10 years in remission she had a reoccurrence as a spinal cord tumor, which was untreatable. My mom’s sister also had breast cancer and passed away shortly after that from a brain tumor.

It’s difficult to explain the weight I carried in terms of feeling like I was destined to live a short life. Then to compound the issue, my father was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is relatively rare and why it took the doctors more than six months to properly diagnose. Blessedly, his cancer was slow growing and responded well to treatment. My dad has now been cancer free for nine years.

Scientists sponsored by the American Cancer Society were behind the identification in the mid 1990s of the BRCA 1 and the BRCA 2 genetic mutations, which eventually provided an ability to test those with strong family history to determine their risk. Even after my dad was diagnosed, I was very fearful of going through with the testing and finding out information that might have felt like a true death sentence.

Then I gave birth to my beautiful daughter and the moment she came out of my body was the moment I decided that I needed to do whatever I could to be here for her as long as I possibly could. I chose to go through with the genetic testing and found out I had tested positive for the BRCA 2 mutation, which is linked to a more than 50 percent chance of breast cancer and up to a 25 percent chance of ovarian cancer. I spent a fair amount of time grieving this news until thankfully I was referred to a wonderful breast surgeon. The confidence she had that she could help me gave me an incredible amount of hope.

I underwent a preventative mastectomy and reconstruction benefiting from all the recent advances in surgical techniques. After the surgery, I felt an incredible sense of lightness and a letting go of that story about how my life was going to unfold. More recently, I also decided to undergo a preventative hysterectomy, including removal of my ovaries. These choices were incredibly difficult and scary for me to make and yet I have also never been more grateful in my life for the opportunity to make these choices, ones that my mom and many others never had.

I hope that there will come a time when the choices I made to remove potentially healthy parts of my body will seem barbaric and we will have many other new options. But right now, this is the option and to be able to have that choice is truly a gift. A gift that I have been given by the American Cancer Society, those innovative scientists, and everyone who assists in so many different capacities with fundraising for Making Strides.

This gratitude I feel allows me to really focus on the good in my life and truly receive these blessings, which fuels a natural willingness to want to give back. I am also acutely aware there are no guarantees in life, not for myself or anyone else, and breast cancer remains an incredibly prevalent disease affecting 1 in 8 women.

I especially hold concern for my daughter, who has already survived leukemia and who carries a significant genetic history.

I am passionate about being involved with Making Strides Against Breast Cancer because I believe the money we raise makes a significant difference. Exciting and groundbreaking research is being sponsored by the American Cancer Society every day. They support scientists with revolutionary ideas, which is how we can move forward and ensure that options for detection and treatment continue to steadily improve.

The American Cancer Society also provides necessary support for those who have received a cancer diagnosis and may feel alone and afraid. There are so many worthy causes these days it can feel overwhelming, but Making Strides in Concord is local and gives a real opportunity to participate. The event is a fundraiser but it also highlights the power of community and the strength in our connectedness. It is an opportunity to come together and feel supported and like you are part of something bigger than yourself. We are all truly part of a beautiful network of life and being at Memorial Field on Oct. 15 will be a tangible experience of that. The hugs, tears, smiles, and laughter are all expressions of our shared humanity.

This year we are asking, “Who will you walk for?”

I personally am walking with hope for my daughter and with a grateful heart for myself. I am walking in memory of my mom, an amazingly strong woman who faced her death with beauty and dignity, and in celebration of my dad, who lives his life with a joyful enthusiasm. I am also walking with a sense of pride for all of us that despite the losses and challenges we have faced due to cancer, we are continuously choosing hope over fear.

Adversity allows us to connect to the strength that is within us. So we stand together on that field and we walk together because together is how we can make a difference.

Over the past 25 years, this group of dedicated individuals has grown Making Strides Against Breast Cancer in Concord into an incredible fundraising powerhouse almost 5,000 people strong, raising the most money per capita of any of these walks throughout the nation. So please join with us, make a donation if you can, create a team, walk with us. You will be glad you did.

Liesl Hasenfuss lives in Henniker.