Rebecca Garrett’s vigilance ensures she will outlive her mother
Rebecca Garrett doesn’t follow the National Football League. Ask her and she’ll probably tell you she can’t tell one team from another. But, as fate would have it, the two do have something in common. This year, the National Football League rolled out its annual pink-trimmed player and fan gear to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this October. The NFL’s slogan this year: “A Crucial Catch.”
Garrett is someone who knows all about crucial catches, and her awareness of breast cancer dates back long before this October. Garrett, it turns out, had a run-in with the disease once before several years ago. The disease also claimed the life of her 45-year-old mom when Rebecca was a young girl.
And this year, breast cancer came back at Rebecca for a second go.
Friday, Jan. 7 … Garrett, who remembered she missed her scheduled mammogram in December, performed her own self-examination … and found a lump. Just three days later, she was in the hospital to see Mammoth Hospital Director of Imaging Dr. Yuri Parisky. “That week I had a biopsy on Tuesday and was diagnosed on Wednesday,” Garrett recalled. “I felt out of control. I needed control, an action plan.” Garrett decided to get organized. She read everything from “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book” to anything she could find on the Internet.
She also researched and made appointments with 8 of the best doctors in the field. “They were in Los Angeles, and I liked all of them, so I picked one in closest proximity to my dad, who had to watch his wife, my mom, die from it.”
On Feb. 16, she went under the knife for a mastectomy, and soon after began a series of chemotherapy infusions. “I was miserable,” she related. “The chemo, losing a piece of your body, it’s tough. There were side effects, but I was lucky in that the early detection and type of cell meant I didn’t need radiation. That and I acted quickly.”
That, she thinks, had a lot to do with her ability to fight back. “My goal is to live longer than my mom. Every year, it’s plus one, then plus two … soon it’ll be plus 10.” By early June, she was deemed free of the disease, though she’ll be getting periodic checks to make sure it stays gone. “We’re getting better at diagnosis and treatment, surgery is getting more specific, reconstruction techniques are so much improved, drugs are more targeted. There’s a lot to be hopeful about.”
Dr. Yuri Parisky also had a life-changing experience with breast cancer when he was in medical school 25 years ago. “I was profoundly affected by a mom, who was pregnant with her second child and found a mass, which later receded,” he explained. “During her third pregnancy, however, it came back, and this time it progressed. We did radical mastectomy surgery, we took out her ovaries, her adrenal gland … she fought it until the day she died.”
Parisky became fascinated by what he called the “spectrum” of the disease. “It’s unlike any other type of cancer,” he pointed out. “Breast cancer mimics the processes of other diseases, it goes where other cancers don’t and it can even go sort of dormant for years before resurfacing. With most cancers, we either cure you or there’s a marked progression. With this one, when we see a mass on the ureter [tubes that propel urine from the kidneys to the bladder], if it’s in a woman, there’s a damn good chance it’s breast cancer.”
He could have gone into oncology, but opted for radiology, which he said is more on the front lines of diagnosis. He was in the trenches during the massive changes that took place during the ‘80s and ’90s. “We perfected new surgical techniques. We no longer needed to take out the ovaries. We also got drugs we never had before, and of course mammography came into its own.”
Parisky said he anticipates seeing 3-5 cases annually in Mammoth, based upon an average local population of 1,000 women age 40-plus. He’s also been working on trying to keep local patients closer to their community, which he added has significant economic and mental benefits. CAT scans and chemotherapy, for example, are now available at Mammoth Hospital.
Breast cancer is elusive and contrarian, and influenced by so many factors, it’s little wonder the medical community, still doesn’t know exactly why it occurs. “We’ll find that through genetics,” Parisky thinks. “Genetic profiling, once it takes hold, will let us look at a cell and assay it, determine risk percentages, and even predict whether you’ll need chemo and if so what kind.”
That, he said, could help women address what he thinks is one of the hardest aspects of preventing the disease: “lifestyle” shifts. Diet and weight, for instance, are factors, but so is waiting to have kids, or not having them at all. “Breast cancer tends to be a more ‘upscale’ disease,” he observed. Indeed, its demographics skew more toward white, college-educated professional women, who tend to put off having families. “When you’re in your 20s, you think you’re bulletproof. By your 30s, you’re focusing on career goals and in your 40s, you’re in cruise mode; so things you should be doing to mitigate the disease don’t tend to register.”
Fight the good fight
Being cognizant of the disease and its peculiarities is something not lost on Garrett, who espouses the benefits of early detection and being as aggressive — if not more so — than the cancer.
“Find it early, and stop it early,” she urges. “Having no insurance isn’t a reason not to. Funds are available. There are free mammograms and support money for treatment. Look into the various organizations: American Cancer Society, Eastern Sierra Breast Cancer Alliance, Mammoth Hospital, any and all of them. Fight for your life … do your research.”
And, she adds, don’t let your life languish. “Eat well, exercise. Women are almost ashamed. They think, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ That’s so counterproductive. Get in front of it, demystify it … get vocal about it!”
Asking for help from friends and family, she suggests, lets them be involved and can also beat back feelings of isolation. “I was so lonely, but having them around helped so much. They helped with dinner, getting the mail, walking the dog … I got like 30 hand-knitted hats, too!”
Garrett said the experience also helped forge some great friendships. “I know who I’d want to have with me skiing the backcountry,” she noted. One of her closest allies through the ordeal: her brother, Jason, who made the trip up from L.A. numerous times, and was with her at practically every step along the way. “He was an absolute rock star!”
Since then, she’s returned to work, visited family and friends in Europe and delights in simply taking her dog, Jade, on long walks through the Eastern Sierra’s network of trails. “And I love that my hair’s growing back,” she quipped.
In the end, Garrett observed that it comes down to attitude. “Defeat is not an option. I went on Facebook and said, ‘I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to kick this thing’s ass!”