There are thousands of us in Portland. We are 28, 45, 74, and every age in between. We are single, married, and divorced. We are daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. At different times (and sometimes all at once), we are scared, but grateful; overwhelmed, but assertive; vulnerable, but tenacious; unsure, but hopeful.
We are breast cancer survivors.
You may know us without really knowing our story, but our stories are meant to be told. To share them helps us move forward with our own healing and inspires others to do the same. Of course, no story is without moments of darkness, fear, pain, and loneliness. But what shines through is the light, laughter, joy, and triumph.
Consider these stories like the squares of a quilt. Sewn together, they reveal a pattern that not only enriches our lives with beauty, but also warms and comforts us.
Perhaps what you notice first about Hannelore (Hanni) Borgens is her charming accent. While she’s lived in the United States since 1987, Hanni was born in Germany in 1957. Much of her family, including her 88-year-old mom, still resides there.
Hanni was quite young the first time cancer impacted her family. Her grandmother died of breast cancer at the age of 57, when Hanni was just 8 years old. Years later, her cousin died of breast cancer at the age of 38. In addition, Hanni’s father had prostate cancer and her uncle had bladder cancer. The prevalence of cancer in Hanni’s family resulted in a heightened awareness and a commitment to screening and vigilance.
Hanni had her first mammogram at age 25, which revealed a walnut-sized lump in her milk ducts. She was whisked into emergency surgery, where the lump was removed and, thankfully, found to be benign. Yearly mammograms followed, and each time, Hanni was relieved when the findings were negative.
“All my life, I said, ‘My gosh, I hope I don’t get it.’ The fear was there every time I had my annual mammogram,” Hanni explained.
But the findings of her June 2014 mammogram were troubling. When Hanni’s radiologist gave her several options, including waiting six months, Hanni quickly replied, “I don’t have time to wait six months with my history.” Soon after, she had a 3D mammogram, several biopsies, and finally a surgery that led to a diagnosis of Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), meaning the cancer had not left the milk ducts. Clean margins were not achieved with her first surgery or her second. At that point, Hanni changed doctors. Her new doctor did genetic testing, which came back negative, and then ordered a special breast MRI. A medical board reviewed Hanni’s MRI, finding it “inconclusive.” Hanni and her surgeon agreed a double mastectomy was the best next step, given her family history. And it turned out to be the right decision, with additional DCIS found in her opposite breast, which never showed up on the MRI.
Hanni’s recovery from the double mastectomy wasn’t easy, but her husband of 34 years and her adult daughter took turns staying home from work to help her. “They were behind me 100%,” said Hanni. “But, of course, it was traumatic for them, too.” Hanni made the difficult choice not to tell her 88-year-old mom, who still lives in Germany and “worries constantly about me.”
Fortunately, Hanni did not need chemotherapy or radiation, so a few months after her mastectomy, she had her tissue expanders replaced with implants during reconstructive surgery. She still struggles with nerve pain and keyloiding (overgrowth of scar tissue), but maintains a positive attitude and doesn’t second-guess herself.
“I am a person who is very positive,” Hanni said. “Of course there are moments when I think, ‘Why me, why me, why me?’ but I know whining doesn’t help me. You wish you could stop it, but you can’t. You just have to make the best of it.”
Among other things, Zumba helped her get through.
“I like music and dancing, but it’s like another world when you do Zumba. I needed it for my soul,” she explained. Hanni made an effort to return to Zumba as soon as she could following her surgeries.
She also loves to laugh and maintains a good sense of humor.
“The other day, I said to my daughter, ‘I should go swimming. I’ve got my own floatation devices!’” Hanni laughed.
Attending a Breast Friends’ monthly support group in Gladstone* has proved very helpful as well.
“We have such a nice group. We have fun, but there’s also times when people fall apart, and we lift them up,” Hanni explained. “But we don’t just talk about cancer all the time. We talk about other things, and I think that’s very important.”
Hanni, meanwhile, continues to be who she’s always been: a creative spirit and animal lover. She makes cloth dolls (“I’m addicted to fabric!”), cooks, knits, rescues feral cats, and enjoys British TV. And she celebrates getting older, while trying to set fear aside.
“Honestly, there are moments when I say, ‘I hope I don’t get more (cancer)’ but most of the time, I just live my life. I have to. If that fear takes over, you’re doomed,” Hanni cautioned. “I still want to live 50 more years. I’m not ready to go anywhere. My husband’s aunt just died at 101. I want to be her!” smiled Hanni.
• Life goes on. “Your life is never going to be the same, but you have to make it yours and deal and cope with it as much as you can.”
• Get second (and third!) opinions and advocate for yourself. “Do not settle if you’re not satisfied. It’s your life, it’s your treatment.”
• Get support; don’t go through it alone**
• Surround yourself with positive people
• Continue with your hobbies as much as you can (“Just take baby steps. You don’t have to leap.”)
• Not every day is going to be the same. (“There’s good days, there’s bad days, there’s worse days, and then there’s REALLY good days.”)
• “It’s all good.”
*Breast Friends offers several monthly support groups. The one Hanni attends meets the third Thursday of each month at the SHOC Foundation, 18575 Portland Ave, Gladstone, OR 97027. For a listing of additional groups, visit: Oregon Support Groups
**Breast Friends ensures that no woman goes through cancer alone. We are a unique resource for women, their family, friends, co-workers and the community to minimize the fear and isolation of cancer. For over a decade, our programs have empowered thousands with emotional support and hope. We are survivors and professionals helping others celebrate the joy of life. Call us at (503) 598-8048 or (888) 386-8048 (toll free).
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