Newsflash

Losing My Mammogram Virginity

From behind her pink-goggled eyes, the little girl smiled up at me. With a swim float encircling her waist and an Esther Williams-era bathing cap adorning her head, she had one message for me: “Do it for those who love you.”

As I stood nervously in the x-ray room, that statement gave me a measure of comfort, albeit in an a-ha sort of way.
 
So, this is why we mount campaigns around themes of “girl power” and “I am woman. Hear me roar.”
 
This is why we wear t-shirts emblazoned with slogans telling us to “fight like a girl.”
This is why every October, we pink out.
 
These cute and clever calls to action exist because monthly self-exams, mammograms and what they both aim to discover – well, these things suck.
 
A few days ago, I walked my most delicate parts up to a tall, torturous-looking machine, smirked sophomorically at the manufacturer name displayed across the top – Hologic – and prepared to lose my mammogram virginity.
 
Nothing ominous had sent me here. Just another year around the sun and a marked change in the conversational priorities of my yearly GYN exam.
 
“Schedule a mammogram before you are 40,” my doctor said casually at my last appointment. “Don’t put it off.”
 
Just a year prior she’d been asking if I had further reproductive plans (negatory). Now? Onto “older life” issues like the merits of elective hysterectomies and baseline mammograms.
 
So, here I stood, in an open-faced gown sans deodorant, lotion or perfume as per instruction, staring at the swimming cutie on the poster and starting to sweat.
The tech was superb. Informative and kind. She kept the process as dignified as possible.
 
“How old are your children?” she asked, eyeing the section of my paperwork that had asked about chest tenderness.
 
“Four and six,” I said, adding this part of my body hasn’t quite been the same since baby girl’s Birth Day in 2009. “Yeah. Is tenderness like that um…normal?”
 
“Honey, pregnancy does all kinds of wild things to women’s bodies! It’s completely normal.”
 
Exhale (sort of).
 
It was mid-afternoon and, no doubt, she’d already done this several times before me, issuing commands like “Move your foot to the left. Place your chin here. Put your right hand on that bar. Don’t squeeze so tight.  Relax your shoulders. Hold still.” And, my personal favorite (required while taking the x-ray), “Don’t breathe.”
 
I felt a wave of relief as she completed the first one. My best friend and my mother, both of whom I’d consulted prior to the appointment, were right. No big deal.
 
After the second, I felt more confident. And, those pesky shoulders were relaxing too.
Then she tilted the Ho (logic). Ow to the left. Double ow to the right.
 
I’d stepped away from the machine, ready to slip my earrings back on and be far, far away from this necessary drudgery when she informed me we weren’t done yet.
“I thought you said there were just four?”
 
“I said four to six. Let’s do one more, and if this one turns out good, then you’re done, okay?”
 
Okay. Dammit.
 
Thankfully, the Ho went back to her upright position, leaving me to approach with slightly less trepidation.
 
With my chin upward, cheek pressed to the glass, arms gripping the bars (tight, but not too tight), and my feet placed most awkwardly below, I thought of my precious little E.
“Doing it for you, sweet girl.”
 
After all, in the name of preventive care, temporarily squashed mammary glands are a small price to pay.
 
This is a beautiful, fragile life, and I intend to squeeze many more moons of joy out of the time that remains. (Plus, there’s Motrin and Malbec at home.)
 
So, c’mon Hologic – let’s do this.
 
Rebecca C. Walden is a freelance writer based in Texas by way of Birmingham. She is a marketing and public relations pro working in higher education.

Survivor raises awareness of IBC

 

Just over eight years ago, Terry Arnold was told “we are sorry but it is most likely too late.” This came after four months of hearing “there is nothing seriously wrong.”
What a jump, a mind stretching leap from “not to worry” to “oh my, you have an out of control cancer that most physicians have never heard of, and treatment knowledge is limited.”  
 
When she was first told she had Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer, she went through a range of emotions, reactions and coping skills. 
 
Flashing back to the late 1970s when her grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer, she remembered her family whispering the “C” word. They were afraid if the word cancer came out of their mouths, it would somehow boomerang back and get them all.  
Knowing how cancer staging was at that time, one can understand the fear.  Exploratory surgery was common practice in determining the spread of the disease. 
 
Arnold said, “In my cancer experience, I felt like I was walking on quicksand.  Nothing was as I would have expected it to be.” 
 
Inflammatory Breast Cancer is not typically found on a mammogram. Outward physical signs are the first clue and at that point the cancer is Stage 3.  Life expectancy is less than 50 percent to make it to five years, and her diagnosis was Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a double whammy. She learned quickly that IBC was uncharted territory.  
 
Although the disease was first written about 200 years ago, and is viewed as the most fatal of all the breast cancers, it did not even have a medical encoding number.  There were no textbooks to teach breast specialists about IBC.  
 
“I felt I was faced with an injustice, I just could not look away,” said Arnold.  
She lobbied the State of Texas to declare an Inflammatory Breast Cancer Month.  In May of 2011, the proclamation was read in the House and Senate. She formed Facebook groups and set up meet-ups with other IBC patients, even on an international level.  The power of one became the power of many.  
 
“The quicksand was deep and engulfing, but we were finding a foothold.  The lack of research was just shocking for IBC and really not all that impressive for Triple Negative Breast Cancer either.  I just assumed that since breast cancer was such a hot topic, that breast cancer research was well funded.  To a point it is, but for the ones that are most fatal, like IBC and TN, the void is wide and deep,” Arnold explained.
 
Almost no funds go to IBC and very little to TN.  Because of this, she has devoted her time — as a volunteer — to educate the lay community about IBC and TN and also to raise funds for research via a foundation she started, The IBC Network Foundation. 
 
In the past three years, the grassroots charity has funded $330,000.00 to research and by the end of this year it expects to reach the half million dollar mark. The volunteers have been invited to be a part of the IBC International Consortium to help foster and fund research.  There is also a sister charity in the United Kingdom. 
 
The IBC Network recently held its first gala in honor of an IBC patient. The theme was “Wish Granted. Hope Lives,” and the supporters look forward to more stellar events like this as the foundation grows to meet the needs of the dedicated researchers.
 
“People ask me, do I feel victorious?  Like a survivor?  A warrior who slew her dragon?  Some days I do,” Said Arnold. “But, some days I feel worn down by the mountain of need in the cancer world.  Mostly, I feel grateful.  My hope is to continue the pink mission started by others before me and direct more funds to research.  We need research.  And, one day we all can feel victorious when we truly have an answer for this because out of the 40,000-plus women who die each year of breast cancer in the United States alone, the largest percentage of those deaths were due to Inflammatory Breast Cancer.”
 

Bayou Greenways 2020 to reshape city's urban fabric

More than 100 years ago, urban planner Arthur Comey laid out a master plan for Houston that included a park system organized around its bayou corridors, a plan that created continuous ribbons of green along Houston’s bayous that tied together parks and diverse communities.

By 2020, that vision could finally become a reality.
 
Bayou Greenways 2020, a part of the Bayou Greenways Initiative, is organizing and pushing the completion of the greenways connections, a 150-plus-mile, continuous line of all-weather trail along a least one side of Houston’s nine major bayous. That will make Houston the number one city in the United States for off-street walking and biking paths, Mayor Annise Parker said.
 
The bayous that will be connected by a continuous ribbon of green space by 2020 are Cyprus Creek, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Hunting Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou, Sims Bayou and Clear Creek. 
 
“The beauty of these bayou corridors is that they crisscross our city and our county. They touch every corner of the city,” said Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of Houston Parks Board, which is leading the private fund-raising efforts and managing the acquisition, design and construction of Bayou Greenways 2020. 
 
“Part of our mission at the Parks Board is to increase equitable distribution of these types of green spaces to benefit all citizens of the greater Houston area. That benefit is that you are closer to this kind of a space where you can take the dog out, throw a Frisbee, and walk an extra day a week because it’s easier, it’s closer to you,” she said.
Those bayous have a way of stitching those communities together like no other method, Okan-Vick said. 
 
Houston is known as “The Bayou City,” but really, it hasn’t effectively used the bayous, instead focusing on roadways as the city has grown. 
 
“We really want Houston defined by its most significant natural resource, its bayou corridors. The Bayou Greenways 2020 project will reshape the city’s urban fabric in a way its roadways haven’t quite been able to,” Okan-Vick said. 
 
“You’re stitching institutions and places together that otherwise did not have a chance to mingle except through roadways,” she said. “And, being out in person, outside of a vehicle, is a different experience. Residents are able to be out there in a space that we all feel comfortable in, in a park space where everybody is equal, and being able to go back and forth between your neighborhood, your little part of the world, through other communities, through other places.”
 
The green space will be natural habitats complete with birds, bugs, butterflies, tree cover, meadows and/or tall grasses. The width of the “shared-use trails,” which will be shared by bikers, walkers and others – anything but a motorized vehicle – will vary.
That access can have significant impact on the quality of life for residents of a city not so long ago dubbed “America’s Fattest City” by Men’s Health magazine. When a person walks a few more times a week, the health benefits can be considerable.
The bayous float to the top of the priorities list.
 
Over the past 100 years, connecting the bayous dropped down the list of priorities. It wasn’t deliberate, Okan-Vick said, but city leaders just sort of forgot about it as the city dealt with the pressures of growth. 
 
“We, sometimes, just looked at those bayous as just the drainage ditches, something that were there by necessity,” she said. However, 10 or so years ago – around the time Houston first earned the “America’s Fattest City” moniker – the city gained an increased awareness of the benefits green space along the bayous could bring. 
 
Now, this $220 million project is “unleashing” more than $2 billion worth of existing green spaces and bits of trails, Okan-Vick said. 
 
“We’ve been building hike and bike trails along our bayous for years,” Parker said. “What has been missing are the connections. I wanted the job finished.”
 
“It’s a huge generator from that standpoint, in terms of bringing some of the assets to life that we really weren’t quite able to use like we will be when these bayou greenways are completed,” Okan-Vick said.
 
A combination of private funds and public funds from the bond that passed in 2012 are paying the bills for the project. Private funds will cover $120 million; as of press time, the Parks Board had raised $81 million.
 
“Roksan understands the importance green spaces provide to our quality of life,” Parker said. “Without her drive and determination, we would not have the funding needed to pay for all of the planned improvements. This is a true example of the benefits of a public/private partnership.”
 
Moving along
A couple of years into the project, there’s activity taking place in different segments.
In the large segments, the Houston Parks Board is acquiring lands which will be turned over to the city after the projects are completed. Other sections are seeing design work and construction.
 
The Brays Bayou segment was recently completed, and soon the White Oak Bayou segment will be finished too.
 
Okan-Vick grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, a beautiful, historically significant city with an incredible urban fabric, she said. She came to Houston to earn her master’s degree in architecture at Rice University.
 
“Thirty-five years ago, I don’t believe we had the maturity to embrace the greenways like we are today,” said Okan-Vick, who worked for the Friends of Hermann Park and was the city’s first female director of the Parks & Recreation Department before joining the Houston Parks Board in 2004. 
 
She continued, “I think we now have an increased awareness — because of how fast we are growing — that this is the most beautiful natural asset we have. If we don’t protect it, we are really hurting our city. We are doing a disservice to future generations and the future livability of our city. There’s a way to embrace both the growth and the stewardship of these natural assets to make the city one of the top livable cities in the United States.”
 
Dave Schafer is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
 
 
 

Bonnie Blue's career in art 'all about making people smile'

 

On the southeast side of Houston, not too far from Hobby Airport, there’s a  post-World War II neighborhood on a dead-end street. The houses are well-kept, and the lawns are tidy. But, it’s the one yellow-and-white frame house with fanciful flowers, vines and butterflies painted everywhere that immediately catches your eye.

This is the home of artist Bonnie Blue, who has lived here 21 years. But, just this past January, she started seeing her house as a new canvas. 
 
Painting the house is a project she said she never intended, but it’s a work in progress that keeps revealing itself to her as she paints. It’s also part of a bigger picture that includes two women-centric art cars in the driveway. 
 
“The neighbors seem to love it,” Blue said, and her husband, Robert, is encouraging her to do more. 
 
Now that she has finished painting a garden on the front picket fence, Blue is focusing on adding a wall of colorful lizards on the back and painting the figure of a man around her electric meter so he can be a true “meter man.” 
 
“I love sharing outdoor art. My cars are outdoor art,” Blue said. “When you travel around in an art car, you’re sharing your art with the world. I have compassion for people who will never enter a gallery, but in an art car, everybody who passes by you is getting to view art.”
 
Inside the house on Colgate Street, Blue runs a boutique where she sells her affordable art. She calls it “art that makes you smile.”  Wine glasses, bras, boots, shoes, hats and salvaged items are all adorned with flowers and women’s faces. Mermaids are a recurring theme because she loves them, and they sell very well in Galveston. 
 
“It’s not fine art; it’s fun art,” she said.
 
Blue will even customized wine bottle labels with portraits –– a popular service she offers for parties and events, along with caricatures on rocks. 
 
It’s the rocks that earned her national attention on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Blue had painted a picture of the comedienne/talk show host on a rock and, somehow, that ended up on the show. Blue said the television exposure propelled her career ahead by 10 years and, suddenly, she was booking parties every week. 
 
Painting women’s faces on rocks was a serendipitous turn in her art career. She has owned and run Blues Restoration since 1978, and it was the first photo restoration company to go digital. When everyone else went digital –– including amateur photographers with access to computer editing programs –– she found her market dwindling and knew she had to find her next path. Fortuitously, art answered the call. 
 
Blue was walking along the banks of the Blanco River in Wimberley when she noticed beautiful river rocks, each one unique.
 
“All of a sudden, I saw women’s faces on them,” she said. “And, it was an inspiration –– a visitation. I don’t know what you call it, but it was very profound. So, I started painting women on rocks. People love them, and I’ve sold hundreds.” 
 
The ladies on the rocks are everywhere in her shop, and they’re an important part of Blue’s message about honoring empowering women. Even on the hood of her Women Rock Artcar –– the one with ever-changing portraits of women like Mother Teresa, Maya Angelou, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and Princess Diana –– she has painted this message: “The Women Rock Artcar was created for women by a woman to honor women, because across the miles, continents, barriers, laughter, abuse, tears, rich, poor, destitute or skin color, we are all connected at the heart.”
 
Her website, www.womenthatrocks.com, shows just a sample of how the Women Rock car’s side panels have been changed to showcase 36 different faces –– of famous and not-so-famous women. 
 
Since 2002, Blue’s art cars have been viewed by thousands of people in art car parades and other events in 15 states. She has won eight first- and second-place awards in Maryland, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and in Houston’s Autorama and Orange Show Art Car Parade. 
 
It’s obvious that Blue’s heart is in creating art, and she’s both self-taught and prolific.  
“My maiden name is Green, and my married name is Blue,” she said. “It seems I was born to be an artist.”
 
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
 

Melissa Bender: 'Lung cancer is not just a smoker's disease'

 

For Melissa Bender, the nightmare started with an upper respiratory infection that wouldn’t go away, plus a little more fatigue than usual and a little shortness of breath when climbing stairs.
 
After about three weeks in which antibiotics didn’t seem to be working, she started to think it might be pneumonia, so her husband insisted she go to the emergency room. 
 
“When they did the CT scan, they found a tumor on my right lung,” said Bender, a 43-year-old mother of two who moved to Texas three and a half years ago. “Before that, I was running on a treadmill and as healthy as can be. So, it was a shock to us to find out I had lung cancer.”
 
How it developed is still a mystery to Bender. She had never been a smoker and had never really been around much second-hand smoke. 
 
Bender had a degree in chemical engineering from Mississippi State University and worked in that field before she became a stay-at-home mom nine years ago. She feels confident she was never exposed to chemicals that might have contributed to her condition. 
 
“There are no symptoms until it’s pretty progressed,” said Bender, whose Stage 4 cancer  is a mutation of epidermal growth factor receptors. “Many are diagnosed at a late stage because there almost no warning signs.”
 
“We need to break the stigma that lung cancer is just a smoker’s disease,” she said. “About 20 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. 
 
“Anyone can develop lung cancer,” said Sandra Curphey Borne, executive director of the Houston chapter of the American Lung Association.
 
More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer, according to the Center for Disease Control. In 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women.  
 
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer now causes more deaths than colorectal, breast and prostate cancers combined. An estimated 158,040 Americans are expected to die from lung cancer in 2015, accounting for approximately 27 percent of all cancer deaths.
 
The rate of new lung cancer cases over the past 37 years has dropped for men (28 percent decrease), while it has risen for women (98 percent increase). 
 
On May 30, the local ALA chapter sponsored the Lung Force Walk at the University of Houston. The walk aimed to raise funds for research, advocacy, education and awareness –– not only for lung cancer, but also for asthma, COPD and other respiratory conditions aggravated by air pollution. 
 
Borne said the ALA has the support of celebrity spokespersons, like singers Kelly Pickler and Jewel, who have personal and family connections to lung cancer. Another spokesperson is actress Valerie Harper who   was diagnosed with terminal metastatic lung cancer in 2009 and initially given only months to live. 
 
Last May, Harper spoke to Congress about providing more federal funding for cancer research and told them, “I am a year and four months past my expiration date.”
 
Harper is one of the lucky ones. The U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute reports the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 54 percent for cases detected when the disease is still localized within the lungs. However, only 15 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. For tumors that spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate is only four percent. More than half of people with lung cancer die within one year of being diagnosed.
 
Borne also has a personal commitment to fighting the disease; her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer the day after she was offered her job at ALA.
 
“This movement...every day it’s my job,” Borne said, “But, every day and every night, it’s my personal mission, and the mission of my family also.”
 
In addition to the walk, the second week of May was designated as Turquoise Takeover, Borne said. The movement asked newscasters to wear turquoise on the air and worked  to bathe buildings in turquoise light to raise awareness. 
 
Meanwhile, Bender is fighting her personal battle with the support of her husband Eric, 13-year-old daughter Maddie, and her nine-year-old son Matthew. 
 
“The love, support and prayers of my family and friends are what have kept me strong,” Bender said. 
 
Some of her good friends put together a team, Mamas for Melissa, for a fund-raising event in February. Bender met Borne at that event and agreed to serve as an ambassador for the Lung Force Walk.
 
Bender’s oncologist has given her plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Her current treatment consists of a pill called Tarceva®. The company's website explains Tarceva® is not a chemotherapy drug, but is a particular type of therapy that affects certain signals –– those EGFR cells that have mutated in Bender’s lungs –– that cancer cells require to grow. 
 
Five months after the nightmare began, Bender’s recent scans show the medication appears to be working.  
 
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine. 
 
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