1992 — Too young to have breast cancer

In 1992, my life was a whirlwind of fundraisers for the Bridge, grading papers at SMU and raising Kirtley. One day a student came by my office and asked if I would talk to her sorority about breast cancer. I said sure, and dug out my “young women and breast cancer speech.”

I arrived at the sorority house amid the bustle of Monday night dinner and talk of tests and football. I knew that breast cancer was not what they wanted to talk about when life and all its possibilities surrounded them.

I wanted to tone it down. Talk a little about breast self exam and then get out of there. But I couldn’t. The ghosts in the room kept pushing me to warn them. And the one ghost in particular . . .

I told them about A’lory, who found a lump in her breast at 21 while in college just as they were. When a mammogram didn’t show anything, A’lory felt reassured, despite the fact that the lump was growing. She graduated from college with a degree in design and was managing a wallpaper store when she met Brad at a country western dance near her home in Fort Worth. Brad had been a rodeo cowboy for 12 years, and they talked that night of their common vision of living on a ranch where they would raise animals and children.

In 1988, they had been dating for a year when A’lory finally went to a doctor, who told her she had breast cancer. She had a mastectomy that revealed 13 positive nodes. She underwent 10 months of chemotherapy. Brad was by her side the whole time. They ended treatment and bought a house, ready to begin their life together. But it was not to be.

In 1990 the cancer was back in A’lory’s liver and lymph nodes along the spine. She had a hysterectomy and more chemotherapy. I told the room of gathered women that I had talked to A’lory a few weeks earlier to say goodbye. She died in February, 1992 at age 28.

The room is silent. For a moment I feel self reproach. What have I done. Their chances of getting breast cancer so young are minute. There is that ghost again. Push them. Tell them about breast self exam. Tell them not to wait if they find a lump. Young women can get breast cancer.

Scare them – but not to death – Scare them to life.

They clap and thank me for coming. The room empties — except for the ghost. It is the picture her mother sent me . . .

She stands in her wedding dress next to her cowboy husband in his western cut suit. It’s the picture from their wedding day that her mother carries with her. They had postponed the wedding until her hair grew back, but the recurrence took it again — no one would know that the black cascading curls are a wig. They will have only 14 months together before she dies.

This is for you A’lory. I leave ready to tell the story again to anyone, anywhere, any time.

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I taught at SMU until 2007, and I can’t remember what year it was when the first former student called to tell me she had breast cancer. But I do remember what she said, “I have done breast exam every month since taking your class and hearing your story and the one about that young woman you used to tell all your classes. What was her name . . . “

A’lory. Her name was A’lory, I replied.

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