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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Jeannie Mulford

'Early detection of cancer can save your life'

October 26, 2007

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Not everyone is as fortunate as David and I were 28 years ago -- to walk down the aisle of an airplane, glance to my left, take one look at each other and know that in an instant we had found each other after lifetimes of searching. My sister would later say it was the greatest case of destiny she had ever heard of, that we were two stars traveling through time who collided that day and found each other somewhere in the skies between Portland, Oregon, and Chicago, Illinois.

Little did I know that morning when I awakened that that would happen, and little did I know that 26 years later, after 55 years of being blessed with near perfect good health, I would return to the United States from our home in India to have a routine annual mammogram and learn that I had breast cancer. That was two and a half years ago, and the very best part of the journey through those years is what I have learned. 

I thought I was afraid of cancer.  I learned that I was not.

I learned something I already knew, that David would be my pillar of strength and love.

I actually thought my long hair was important (I had not had short hair since I was eight years old.)

US Ambassador's wife in campaign against breast cancer

What I learned was that for Lance Armstrong, who went on after brain and testicular cancer to win the Tour de France, it was not about the bike -- and that, certainly, for me was not about the hair.

I learned that we are not always given in life the opportunity to be courageous and strong, and I saw this as my opportunity.

I chose to have a double mastectomy so that I could avoid a possible reoccurrence, begin chemotherapy more quickly, and I would not need radiation. I learned how successful breast reconstruction can be, and I wish more women could know this as well. I feel it would give them comfort when faced with certain outcomes of breast cancer.

During many of the most difficult times, I would actually say to myself: 'How could I possibly be feeling so well, so strong?' I learned that the answer always was that someone somewhere would be thinking of me, saying a prayer, asking the Ambassador how I was doing, lighting a candle, giving him a wave across the parking lot or namaste across the garden -- all of which let him know they were thinking of me.

Every card, e-mail, flower sent, phone call, every word of encouragement, every small kind gesture -- not one went unnoticed, every single gesture was received and appreciated and will be remembered.

I would tell my sisters, my two guardian angels who looked after me when David needed to return to the Embassy in India, that I would suddenly have the feeling of being elevated, somehow lifted by the goodwill, the prayers and thoughts of others and carried through the most difficult times.

At the very beginning of the process I resolved not to spend even one moment thinking a sad thought.

I learned that I could change in an instant a negative thought into a positive thought. 

I learned that early detection of cancer can save your life and I encourage all of you, women and men alike, to do your annual exams, learn the early warning signs of some cancers, do self-examination, take the time from your busy schedule, save the money for tests if you must pay yourself, spend it on something that can and will save your life.  However unpleasant you think the test is, it is nothing compared to what you could go through if you put if off.

A month after breast surgery I learned that I needed to have open-heart surgery to correct an anomaly that might have interfered with my chemotherapy. I learned that because I had such a squeaky clean heart and had never smoked that I could walk two 14-minute miles a day, only six days after surgery. Two weeks after heart surgery, I was in Washington for the White House State Dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images]

My captive audience of doctors and nurses in Cleveland and New York gave me the chance to tell them of my life here in India and what I have learned that I wish so many more Americans and people worldwide could know, that our Embassy is filled with hard-working, talented, wonderful people, both Americans and Indians working side-by-side on so many fronts of endeavour to improve mankind and our important friendship with this remarkable country. 

Four weeks after finishing the chemotherapy on my 56th birthday, I returned to India to welcome the President of the United States George Bush [Images] and Mrs Laura Bush to India for their historic visit wearing my wig, and considering myself the most grateful person in the world to be feeling so well and to be back in India.

When David and I sat down to discuss our plan for dealing with my breast cancer, I initially said, 'I am going to do whatever it takes to overcome this and we are not going to tell anyone except my family.' I remember David looking sympathetically but incredulously at me and saying, 'In our present circumstances in India, how do you suggest we do that?' 

I understood immediately that it could not be kept a secret. I learned since then that it should not. What I learned was that if I could speak openly about breast cancer, as I have done so today, and if only one woman is moved to have an exam that exposes breast cancer in an early, treatable stage that saves her life, it will have been worth every minute of the journey for me.

(The writer is the wife of the US Ambassador to India David C Mulford. She spoke at a US Embassy briefing to mark the International Breast Cancer Awareness Month on Thursday, October 25, 2007 in New Delhi)

The Rediff Specials