I always wondered if I’d be able to handle a life threatening event or disease. As a psychotherapist I knew that confidence comes from past successes, and I had been extremely fortunate that everyone in my family, including my 80 years old parents, were alive and healthy. So, without being tested, my fear was that I would fall apart, give up, or panic.
It didn’t happen! I was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 22, 1994, and instead of collapsing I began to gather information. Becoming informed was my key to making the right decisions for myself, taking care of my mind and body, and feeling in control of my life, at least a little bit. I began learning everything I could about a subject I had never wanted to know about.
I had wonderful support from my family, friends and doctors. They talked with me, cried with me, and shared their love and knowledge with me also. I still remember some of their words of wisdom. A dear woman who taught me to meditate and to visualize my body being cleansed told me not to put off until the proverbial tomorrow. “ A diagnosis of cancer can be a giant wake up call to make all the changes in your life and do what you’ve always wanted to do now. Some people get hit by a Mack truck and never have the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do. Take advantage of this gift, ” she said.
And, I did. I began to be kinder to myself and to my loved ones. I made more time to be with family and friends and to tell them how much I value their love and support I stopped worrying about things I could not control and started laughing more. I used my diagnosis of breast cancer to become a happier and healthier person.
I also used it to make a difference in the world. A year after my diagnosis, after losing all my hair going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, I was back out on the tennis court. As I swung at each ball, I felt good but, I asked myself, “What if I had a recurrence of the cancer, what would I need then?” I would want new and better treatments and I want to protect my daughter, mother, sister, and future grandchildren from this insidious disease. Understanding that research is the only way to achieve these goals, I began to investigate how I could ensure that more research into the cures, causes, and most importantly, the prevention of breast cancer is funded.
I discovered the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC). When NBCC was formed in 1991 the federal government was only spending 90 million dollars on breast cancer research. As a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring adequate federal funding for breast cancer research, NBCC set out to change that. In November of 1995, I got five breast cancer survivors together and we formed the Florida Breast Cancer Coalition as an affiliate of the national organization.
As president of the Florida Breast Cancer Coalition I have had the most exciting and gratifying experiences. I have made wonderful friends; people whose friendship extend way beyond our breast cancer connection. I have learned how to be an effective advocate and had the opportunity to visit all our legislators in Washington and Tallahassee. Together we have increased federal funding for breast cancer research to over 800 million dollars in 2008. We have ensured that women diagnosed with breast and cervical cancer in Florida through the CDC screening program will be entitled to treatment and not have to beg or travel hundreds of miles to be treated. We have helped pass legislation guaranteeing access to clinical trials for Medicare beneficiaries; protection against genetic discrimination for federal employees; establishment of the Department of Defense (DOD) Breast Cancer Research Program, and enactment of the Native American Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Technical Amendment Act.
Perhaps most exciting was our accomplishment right here in Florida. The Florida Breast Cancer Coalition spearheaded the campaign to create the End Breast Cancer specialty license plate to raise money for breast cancer research in Florida. With the support of many people, including all our Florida legislators, the license plate was signed into law in April 2002. Twenty-five dollars from each plate sold goes directly to the Florida Breast Cancer Coalition Research Foundation for research grants. To date, we have collected almost 2 million dollars which we have awarded for research and education grants here in Florida.
I certainly never would have wanted to get breast cancer but I can honestly say that it has enriched my life in many ways. I have learned that it is what we do, what we make of our situation, and how we learn and grow from it that matters most. I have found that I am stronger than I thought, that I can make a difference, and that family and friends are my foundation. As one of my new friends says, “while we can’t control everything in our lives, we can nourish our destiny.”
Jane Torres is Founder and past president of the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation and a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Miami. Jane has been honored by the Mayor of Miami-Dade County who proclaimed March 31, 1998, “Jane A. Torres Day,” and was selected by MAMM Magazine as one of the “50 Who Make a Difference.” She can be reached at 305-371-2773 or firstname.lastname@example.org.