By B. J. Coleman
Lilian Vanvieldt-Gray has advice for women about breast cancer: “Information is key.” She counsels that women should assess their risk factors, especially through investigating family history of cancer diagnoses. She further advises that women practice monthly self-examinations and schedule annual mammograms.
Vanvieldt-Gray knows what she speaks about. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2017. Today, she is serving as the 2018 Komen San Diego Race for the Cure Honorary Breast Cancer Survivor. This year’s 22nd annual Race for the Cure will be held in Balboa Park on Sunday, Nov. 4.
Vanvieldt-Gray was tapped to be Honorary Survivor in April, with duties that include representing the Komen San Diego organization in media appearances and addressing women with information about breast cancer treatments, including how to manage and survive the disease.
Doing self-exams regularly since she turned 33, she began having an annual mammogram every year after her 40th birthday. After a couple of false positives for breast cancer, she thought little of another report of “suspicious” tissue detected in mid-2017, with a subsequent biopsy recommended.
She experienced no symptoms and had no pain, but she did have breast cancer.
One in 8 women overall will be diagnosed with breast cancer. One out of 100 men will have the disease. Statistics for African-American women are both better and worse — 1 in 9 develop breast cancer; however, the disease survival rate is substantially lower.
“This is no longer a death sentence,” Vanvieldt-Gray said. “I want women to not be afraid. You can beat this.”
She particularly wants women to be unafraid of mammograms. Early detection of breast cancer increases survival rates and lessens the difficulties of treatment and cure.
She noted that, prior to her diagnosis, she was ignorant about her own significant risk factors for developing breast cancer. For one thing, Vanvieldt-Gray has dense breasts, which increases probable development of the disease. She thought that because her mother had never experienced breast cancer, her own chances were low, too, but her aunt had ovarian and breast cancer during the 1960s and her grandfather, uncle, father and brother all developed prostate cancer. As it turns out, Lilian Vanvieldt-Gray carries the BRCA II gene, which greatly increases cancer risk, and her family’s history of cancer suggested the likelihood of genetic factors. The mutation increases risk of breast cancer by 45 to 65 percent
“This disease absolutely shakes you down to the core,” Vanvieldt-Gray said. “This rocks you. You wonder, how much time do I have? And I wanted immediate intervention, to get started on getting rid of the disease.”
Oncology caregiver support staffers explained that this response is common and normal, although there are protocols to be followed for the best treatment of breast cancer.
Vanvieldt-Gray went through a course of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy six months later. Adriamycin and Taxol were the drugs that helped shrink her tumor. She lost her hair, her nails turned black, and she suffered neuropathy. She completed radiation sessions on June 8.
Vanvieldt-Gray attended last year’s Komen San Diego walk, which she described as the second-best day of her life, after the day she married her husband.
The subsequent news is good for Vanvieldt-Gray. She stated that she is adjusting to a “new normal” in her life.
“This is a horrible illness, which I’d like to see erased in the next 10 years,” she said. “This has a terrible impact on people’s lives. It affects the whole family.” Vanvieldt-Gray observed that the solution would come in the form of several cures. “There is no single cure.”
Shaina Gross, president and CEO of Susan G. Komen San Diego, added perspective. She said she expected around 8,500 people to attend the 2018 Race for the Cure on Nov. 4. Most of the money raised will stay within San Diego. The funds pay for free mammogram screenings and support activities for women in financial need while undergoing breast cancer treatment and recovery. Gross said the statistic that 41,000 individuals die each year from breast cancer is unacceptable.
Gross said that four keys are essential in fighting breast cancer: “Know your risks, get screening, know what is normal for you, and maintain a healthy way of living.”
Vanvieldt-Gray is sponsoring this year’s Survivor Tent at the event.
“This is encouraging, empowering, positive and uplifting,” she said. “This is about celebrating life.”
“Come celebrate with us,” Gross said.
Vanvieldt-Gray and her husband, Douglas Gray, are longtime residents of Downtown San Diego.
—B. J. Coleman is a local freelance journalist and editor/staff reporter with 22nd District Legionnaire. B.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.