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Sandy, Gresham area breast cancer survivors share stories to empower, educate women

POST PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Deb Hart endured 26 rounds of chemo and a double masectomy only months after losing her son Kasey. Everyone deals with illness differently.

Of all of the women who have fought breast cancer or are currently battling the disease, for some it's all they can do to get up every morning. For others, like Colleen Hoyt, Deb Hart and even The Gresham Outlook newspaper's own Anne Endicott, it was all the doctors — or colleagues — could do to get these women to slow down.

Two years ago, Sandyite Colleen Hoyt was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Through four rounds of chemo, four rounds of radiation and two surgeries, Hoyt, an integral volunteer for Friends of the Sandy Library of more than 20 years, never missed a day of volunteering. Her standing hair appointment on Fridays — she also never missed that.

"That was kind of me trying to stay normal," Hoyt admitted.

Hoyt looked at cancer treatment with a mindset similar to how she looked at retirement several years ago.

"You gotta get up in the morning," she noted. "You can only spend so much time playing in the dirt."

Unlike many women who undergo cancer treatment, Hoyt noted that she didn't experience the bouts of depression typical from the often taxing experience.

"When I found out, I said, 'Colleen, you dumbhead, you should have gone in for a mammogram sooner,'" Hoyt said. "I didn't get depressed or weepy. I actually blamed myself."

POST PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Colleen Hoyt is a 20-year volunteer with the Friends of the Sandy Library and never missed a day of volunteering while undergoing chemo and radiation. Accepting her diagnosis and trudging onward, she advised other women to learn from her mistake and get mammograms regularly.

"(Breast cancer) is so prevalent in this day and age. You just have to stay on top of it. (Mammograms) should be as routine as a flu shot," Hoyt explained.

Stronger together

For Deb Hart, tragedy seemed to have her number.

In 2006, Hart's son Kasey, who worked as a tugboat captain in Alaska, was found dead. Three months into mourning her loss, Hart was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and subsequently went through 26 rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.

Knowing 1 in 8 women battle breast cancer, Hart, from her grief, did something exceptional, starting Pink Sistas — a retreat program to empower breast cancer survivors.

"Everyone has a worst — a divorce, a relationship ending — and most of the women who come to these retreats, their worst is the C-word: cancer," she explained.

Her worst was actually losing her son, but that experience also is what inspired her to start a nonprofit organization.

"My story really is about devastation, which has swung to the other side of inspiration," she noted.

Hart has lived in a floating-home community on the Columbia River for 15 years. She now resides along Marine Drive just beyond the Portland border. Women from all over Oregon and Washington come to her humble floating abode to commune and heal.

Guests partake in activities like glamping, jewelry making, yoga and a plethora of the recreational activities the river has to offer. Just this year, Jan Weston of Weston Kia donated a boat to the nonprofit group for the retreats.

"We teach the girls, through the experience, self-esteem," Hart said. "And they don't even realize their self-esteem is being built. Our goal for those girls is to find a friend in this group. Breast cancer is a lifelong journey. We hope to empower these women with self-esteem and to have someone they trust and love to take along with them on their journey."

Life changer

Hart's own experience was quite different from the retreats she hosts at her home.

"When I lost my son I kicked a lot of my friends to the curb," Hart noted. "They didn't know what to do. My experience was a pretty lonely one, but it was a choice I had made."

It wasn't until she realized her dream of starting Pink Sistas that she started refilling her inner circle. Her friends fully supported her endeavor.

Now, through her retreats and in any way possible, Hart advocates for early detection and prevention of breast cancer.

"I'm no doctor, but I truly am an advocate," she said. "We had very young women this year at our retreats. If you have breast cancer in your family or anything suspicious, I don't care how old you are, go get it checked out. I also believe in my heart that if you don't love everyone on your medical team — run — and find someone else. This is a lifelong relationship."

Hart still has regular check-ins but has been told there is currently no evidence of the disease in her system.

"Losing Kasey really took the wind out of my sails," Hart added. "Having a breast removed is also very emotional. I can tell you every woman who has had a mastectomy, all they yearned for was their old breasts. There's mental and physical scarring. Nerve endings have been cut through — it's a process to get through the reconstruction part of it. I don't know many women who like the end result. It's not like a boob job. It's very painful."

Though her breasts will never be the same, neither will Hart's life, which — devastation included — isn't all bad.

"I have been very lucky in that Stage 3 often has a high reoccurrence rate. I credit (my health) to keeping my stress, grief under control," she added. "I feel really grateful and blessed that I get to share this floating-home experience with so many people. The river has just such a healing property to it."

POST PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Gresham Outlook, Sandy Post and Estacada News Special Sections Editor Anne Endicott was diagnosed with breast cancer on her birthday last July and considers herself a 'poster child for early detection.'By Anne Endicott

The Post

It's a sobering statistic: 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. And 85 percent of them will have no family history of the disease.

I'm part of that statistic — but I am also a survivor.

In July 2017, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. On my birthday. Not exactly a welcome "gift" but a gift nonetheless — Stage 1, contained and curable.

The key here is "Stage 1, contained and curable." What my surgeon referred to as a mass measuring "a pinch less than an inch" had not spread and was just sort of hanging out like a quiet time bomb. Typically, breast cancer has no symptoms when the mass is small, so who knew?

Even though breast cancer was not part of my family's medical history, I have religiously scheduled a mammogram every October for more than 25 years as part of my annual "Hi! How are you?" with the gynecologist. Yes, mammograms rate up there with root canals on the Fun-O-Meter scale, but isn't 30 minutes of time worth the rest of your life?

Technology with mammography has advanced to the point where most screenings are now done in 3-D. The process takes less time, enables physicians to see more and diagnose sooner. In fact, mammograms can detect breast cancer up to two years before you or your doctor can actually feel a lump. Furthermore, if the cancer is located only in the breast, the five-year survival rate of those diagnosed is 99 percent.

Here's the deal though: the mass found on my left side in July 2017 was not on my mammogram films nine months earlier. Which makes a huge case for self-examination between screenings.

I have no idea how many of those pink door-hanger self-examination cards I've thrown out through the years. But that is exactly how I found the mass that punched my ticket for a journey I never expected to take. We know our bodies best and sometimes, we need to pay attention to the odd little messages it sends. In my case, it was just a soreness that caused me to start poking around looking for a bruise.

Even though I had done everything I could (and should) have to avoid membership in the "One-In-Every-Eight Club," early detection is the reason why I walked through hell and came out the other side.

Are you doing what you should/can? Here's what the American Cancer Society recommends when it comes to mammograms:

n Women age 40 to 44 should consult with their doctor to decide whether or not to start annual screenings.

n Women age 45 to 54 should have a mammogram each year.

n Women age 55 or older can make the choice to switch to having a mammogram every two years or continue yearly screenings.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, however, identifies age as the No. 1 risk factor for breast cancer. The risk increases with each birthday and most breast cancers are diagnosed after a woman hits the half-century mark.

I've barely put age 60 in the rear view mirror. But in the words of the eternal seeker of lost shakers of salt, Jimmy Buffett, 'There's just too much to see waiting in front of me, and I know that I just can't go wrong.'

Be more than just aware — get a mammogram.

Anne Endicott is the special sections editor of The Post, Outlook and Estacada News.

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