Story and Photo By Danielle Debley
It is expected that one in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Survivor, Helen Michener, never thought that she would be a statistic. After finding out that she had breast cancer, Helen began a journey that would shape her life to this day. Her experience, though difficult, has not taken away from her life, but rather has added to it. Through her struggle, she has had the ability to gain community, raise funding, and spread awareness to and for those who may be at risk of breast cancer.
“I was almost 68 years old when I went for my routine mammogram, you know, the same old story. It was funny because I was so busy that day that I had thought ‘Oh, I’ll reschedule,’ but I went. I finished the test but the nurse came back and said that the doctor wanted to get a few more pictures – that’s when the craziness starts to creep into your head.
“Afterwards, I went in to talk with the doctor – it was a tiny exam room with just the doctor, the nurse and myself. He said ‘Here have a seat,’ and in my head I thought, ‘I’m not going to sit and have these people towering over me!’ So I said, ‘no,’ and he sat down instead. He told me that 80 percent of the time it’s usually nothing but he still wanted to do a biopsy. Being a nurse, I knew he was right, but your head just kind of goes whacko.
“It was a week later that I had the biopsy. I just thought…this isn’t going to turn out alright. I hadn’t told anyone about it except for my husband. We have two children and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh – if this doesn’t turn out right I can’t just call them out of the blue and say, hey guess what? So I let them know what was going on and it was really nice to have their support waiting to get the news.
“We drove down to get the results and things turned out to not be ok. I was able to get in an appointment with the surgeon within three or four days – luckily I got in for my surgery within a week of finding out. October 21, six years ago, I had a mastectomy. Because I chose to do that, I didn’t have to go through the radiation and chemo. One of the things you do learn is that, it is a personal decision, how you deal with it. It doesn’t matter what anybody else has done or said – you’re the one that has to feel you’re doing the best for yourself.
“A month-and-a-half later I had my reconstruction and so within a three-and-a-half-month period, I had my three surgeries and I was good to go! Then it was just a matter of coming to grips with what was going on with me – initially, I just wanted to ignore this whole mess.”
Before Helen even knew she would have her own struggle, she was part of the breast cancer community, participating in multiple Komen Walks throughout the country. These walks are very established fundraising opportunities which last three days – those participating walk 60 miles and must raise at least $2,500.
“I had done walks in D.C, Cincinnati, and Boston before, and then about six months after the surgeries I walked in Seattle. It was much more emotional because I was a survivor at that point,” says Helen.
While she loved the mission of the Komen Foundation, Helen decided that she wanted to get involved closer to home and help raise funds and awareness locally.
“I contacted the PA Breast Coalition about volunteering. I mentioned before that I wanted to just pretend this never happened to me but you realize that, it doesn’t have to define me, but it is a part of me. You find that you’re part of a different family, a new community. So I got involved with the Coalition and it was funny – I went there thinking, ‘Well, I’m a nurse and I’ve had this experience. I’ll hold people’s hands and make them feel all good about themselves.’ I quickly realized that they needed money more than they needed that!” says Helen.
Within the last five years, Helen and friend, Laraine Forry, have raised close to $200,000 for the Coalition. The pair became fundraisers after they both retired and started several large events to help bring in funds and put out awareness and information regarding breast cancer.
“We do a wine event at Bucks Valley Winery in Newport each June. The other event we called Drive Out Breast Cancer; we partner with car dealerships who donate money for the cars they sell. This year at the wine event we raised $26,000 – everything is donated, it’s really awesome. During the Drive Out Breast Cancer event in 2018 we made $31,000. We’ve got eight more dealerships coming on this year so we are hoping to make at least $40,000,” explains Helen.
In 2016, Helen turned 70 and decided she needed a challenge. She made up her mind to walk from Philadelphia to Harrisburg during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
“Highmark helped advertise it and Laraine, along a few other friends, contacted businesses that were around the area. We stopped at several hospitals and did some other awareness events along the way – it ended up being 111 miles; that was fun,” Helen says with a laugh.
Through her difficult experience, Helen has bettered and enriched her own life, as well as her community. She encourages women of every age and situation to check themselves and make sure to go get tested regularly. For those struggling with breast cancer personally or who may have a loved one who is going through cancer, you can get more information and help at www.pabreastcancer.org.