By Kelley Carlson
ContributorAt age 35, Bianca Lundien Kennedy was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing treatment, she eventually decided on a bilateral mastectomy, following her older sister’s struggle with multiple recurrences of the disease.
Years later, Kennedy and her sister both appear to be cancer-free and living proof that this is an “Era of Hope.”
Kennedy is now a breast cancer advocate and recently attended a forum from Aug. 2-5 in Orlando, Fla., that was sponsored by the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. More than 1,450 researchers, breast cancer survivors, clinicians and members of the public gathered at the sixth annual “Era of Hope” meeting to discuss the latest findings in breast cancer research.
“While the scientists say that they are humbled by the stories of the many breast cancer survivors they have met at this event, I believe I can speak for the breast cancer advocates in saying that we survivors are profoundly humbled by the sheer determination and dedication that drives this community of scientists to engage in the all-encompassing challenge to eradicate breast cancer,” Kennedy said in a news release. “We are humbled and honored.”
According to the Department of Defense, one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. The disease is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States. About 39,840 women and 390 men are projected to die from the disease in 2011. More than 250,000 women and nearly 2,000 men are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
The Rancho Santa Fe resident’s own experience with breast cancer dates back to 2001, when she first received the diagnosis. Her sister, Lea Harlig, of Houston, had already fought breast cancer twice, at ages 31 and 34.
Kennedy said in an interview that her treatment started with a lumpectomy, a surgical procedure in which a lump is removed from the breast. About three months into Kennedy’s chemotherapy, her sister was once again diagnosed with breast cancer, at age 38.
“My doctor lobbied my family and me ... he felt (Harlig) was undertreated, and she was sent to another doctor,” Kennedy said.
That was when Kennedy decided she wanted a bilateral mastectomy, the removal of both breasts.
“I tell people ... it was to reduce my risk dramatically, but being the largest degree it was for peace of mind,” she said.
Kennedy finished chemotherapy after six months of treatment, and a month later had the removal performed.
“It turned out very well, thankfully,” Kennedy said. “My life changed dramatically. I let go of my fears ... I don’t sweat the small stuff like I used to.”
Harlig was more aggressively treated for her cancer, but still had one more occurrence. Kennedy said that during Harlig’s most recent bout, everything was removed, and some residual breast tissue was found.
“She’s doing great now,” Kennedy said. “She had a really good, positive attitude. She was the main person (I turned to) — she really eased my journey, seeing her life full and rich.”
About a year out of her breast cancer experience, Kennedy — who was living in Chicago with her husband, Ron — learned about Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization. Initially intending to be a volunteer, Kennedy was hired as contact center coordinator for the organization’s 24-hour hotline, which is completely staffed by breast cancer survivors. She worked there for about five years, until she and her husband relocated to California in January 2010, and continued to volunteer afterward.
Eventually, Kennedy was nominated by Y-ME to participate in the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, the second-largest source of breast cancer research funding in the United States. The program includes survivors — also known as consumer advocates — in each aspect of the research process.
A few times each year, Kennedy travels to the Washington, D.C., area to participate in review sessions, where she looks over proposals, makes recommendations and helps with the research process.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “What we do today may very well impact someone 10 to 20 years from now.”
Because of Kennedy’s participation as a consumer reviewer of research applications submitted to the program, she was invited to attend the sixth annual Era of Hope meeting, which is held every two to three years at various locations around the country. Among the topics discussed were disease risk and recurrence, stem cells, improved imaging, metastasis, vaccines, novel therapies and health disparities.
The forum was Kennedy’s first; while she was there, she was tapped to do a vignette to showcase the conference, to be featured on the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program’s Web site.
“I certainly have a wealth of information (to share),” she said. “And they really encourage networking there.”
Kennedy noted that one of the scientists at the event, Dr. Geoffrey M. Wahl, a professor at the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, found her at a water fountain during “Era of Hope.” She said she has been recruited to provide advice on his scientific research proposal on embryonic stem cells, as he seeks federal funding for a grant.
• Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, https://cdmrp.army.mil