When Mary Waterman was diagnosed with a stage four breast cancer in 1996, she knew her odds of surviving were slim. Together with a group of friends, including Lucy Day and Cecile McCaull, she founded the Breast Cancer Alliance. Their mission was not only to support research to improve treatment and survival rates, but also to make the lives of breast cancer victims better.
In the almost twenty years since Mary and her friends began the BCA (sadly nine months later Mary passed away), it has evolved into a comprehensive nonprofit that supports everything from cutting-edge research of young innovators to fellowships for promising doctors interested in becoming breast surgeons. It has also helped thousands of local women by backing programs that offer free or low-cost mammograms at Stamford and Greenwich hospitals.
“I think we can look at so many accomplishments, but maybe the greatest one is that what started out with a small circle of friends has grown into one of the preeminent breast cancer foundations in the country,” says Yonni Wattenmaker, the BCA’s executive director.
As we honor breast cancer month, the BCA is set to kick off a year filled with twentieth anniversary celebrations, starting with its annual luncheon on Thursday, October 22, where survivor and reporter Andrea Mitchell will deliver the keynote speech.
YONNI WATTENMAKER ON COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS
MAMMOGRAMS AREN’T NECESSARY
While there have been some studies that suggest mammograms are not especially effective in detecting breast cancer, Yonni stresses the screening method remains vital. “The truth is that early detection saves lives,” she says. “[Mammograms] don’t pick up every cancer and it’s not foolproof, but they can make a huge difference for so many women.”
BREAST CANCER IS A “SINGULAR” DISEASE
“There are actually so many different kinds of breast cancer that we need to start using the phrase breast cancers in a plural way,” notes Yonni. Indeed, spreading the message that there are many different kinds of breast cancer is critical to understanding why women’s experiences with the disease can be so profoundly different. “It’s important to understand there isn’t one cure, one treatment, one prognosis,” says Yonni. “It’s also why the need for research, which increases our understanding of the various kinds of [breast cancer], continues to be so important.”
FAMILY HISTORY MATTERS MOST
While there are breast cancer genes that do elevate the risk of developing the disease in some women, assuming you are safe because there’s no history in your bloodline is a potentially tragic mistake. “Eighty-five percent of breast cancer is completely random and occurs in women with no known family history,” says Yonni.
“No family history is not a reason to not be vigilant about the disease.”
YOU AGE OUT OF THE RISK POOL
“There are some women who think that if they haven’t been diagnosed by the time they are a certain age, say fifty, that they are no longer at risk,” says Yonni. “This is a disease that affects one in eight women. Half of cancer diagnoses are over the age of sixty-one.”