Breast cancer survivor Kelly Lang with her husband, country singer T.G. Sheppard. JIM CLASH
While in her early thirties, country singer Kelly Lang felt lumps in her left breast. She brushed it off as, well, a lumpy breast. After all, many women have them (lumps). She ignored it until a friend who had just had breast cancer urged her to get checked out. Reluctantly, she did and was given a clean bill of health.
But the lumps did not go away. In fact, after several months, her left breast became painful. Again, more apprehensive this time, Lang saw a doctor, a different one. The stunning diagnosis: The Big C, as she calls it in her recent book, “I’m Not Going Anywhere,” with a Foreword by the late singer Olivia Newton-John.
Luckily for Lang, she had an understanding partner, country singer T.G. Sheppard, with both the disposition and financial resources to help care for her. After an operation followed by chemotherapy, Lang was told she was clean - and, evidently still is, 17 years later - a huge relief to her and her family.
Having found myself in a similar situation with my ex-partner, Laurie, several years ago, I can identify with Lang’s experience. When Laurie called from work to give me her diagnosis, I felt like a Mack truck [excuse the cliche] had hit me. Like Lang, she was in her early thirties. Isn’t this an older woman’s disease?
Not really. There is less incidence in younger women, for sure, one in 204 for those in their thirties, according to the National Cancer Institute. More surprising is that, overall, women born in the U.S. today have about a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes. For perspective, that is up significantly from one in 10 in the 1970s. Think about that.
The afternoon of Laurie’s call, I abruptly abandoned the story I was writing and headed to Barnes and Noble to purchase books about the disease. What I found in my reading is that there are several types and stages of breast cancer and that women have choices for treatment. The disease is not necessarily a death sentence and often can be managed. That gave me some optimism.
Lang’s book, a copy of which she gave me on my recent visit to Nashville, Tennessee, is a personal account of her own life and bout with breast cancer. Turns out her cancer was Stage II that had spread to the lymph nodes under her arm. That was more advanced than Laurie’s Stage I, which hadn’t yet metastasized. Like Lang, Laurie chose to have a lumpectomy operation, then several weeks of radiation, and, since hers had been an Estrogen-receptive-positive tumor, took the prescription drug Tamoxifen to help prevent recurrence. Because Lang was already Stage II, she needed to add to her treatment dreaded chemotherapy.
Particularly interesting to me is that Sheppard wrote chapter 22 in Lang’s book, which I easily identify with. Other than my own research and advising Laurie on decisions, I felt pretty helpless. I wasn't a doctor, I wasn’t a trained psychologist - and I wasn’t the one suffering physically. All I could do was offer comfort, as Sheppard did, and, as importantly, a somewhat objective opinion in researching hospitals and treatments.
For example, at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, there was a recommendation that we consider a mastectomy. New York Hospital, down the street, was more progressive in its thinking, recommending the lumpectomy. Both are among the top cancer hospitals in the world. One could argue that Sloan, while more conservative, offered a better chance at long-term survival, but the statistics for Laurie’s type and stage of cancer at the time looked pretty much the same for both treatments.
The key takeaways from Lang’s book and from my own experience: Breast cancer is widespread - one in eight is a sobering statistic. So if you feel something, get checked. Once diagnosed, get a second opinion, maybe a third. Lang found out the hard way being misdiagnosed, which wasted precious time for her getting treatment. Be informed by doing research on the types and stages of breast cancer - there are so many. And lastly, as a partner, help out in all of these areas. Often the affected woman is stunned, scared, and unable to think clearly.
Women of all ages - and their significant others - might consider “I’m Not Going Anywhere.” There are many textbooks on the subject, of course, but this well-written personal account presents an optimistic, open-minded woman with lots of color, she being in the entertainment business. It also shows the darker side: Lang’s pain from chemotherapy, the shock of losing her hair just three weeks after the chemo began, the financial burden of her treatments, her later gut-wrenching preventative hysterectomy, questioning her faith in God, etc. The account also gives perspective on the disease from a partner, not often found in such books. Given Olivia Newton-John’s recent passing from her own bout with breast cancer, the book is timely, too.