Have you taken a moment to think about the most influential person in your life in 2010? And, have you told that person how influential that person has been?
While I’m always curious about who Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is each winter, that moment always gives me pause to think of who has influenced my life during the year. I’m thankful that this year has been filled with SO MANY amazing people who have helped me breathe easier and be inspired daily. There is, however, one person who created an opportunity and program that affected my life this year.
This year’s (the inaugural) Influential Person of the Year is…..
Sue Friedman, Founder and Executive Director of FORCE (Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered)
Dr. Sue Friedman was practicing small animal medicine in south Florida in 1996 when she was diagnosed “out of the blue” at age 33 with what appeared to be sporadic breast cancer. At the time, she was unaware of any familial risk factors for hereditary cancer. After her treatment, however, Sue realized from an article about hereditary breast cancer that she had several indications for a mutation. She pursued genetic counseling, and in 1997 she tested positive for a BRCA2 mutation.
Shocked that her health care team didn’t alert her to the possibility of being at high risk, and disappointed at having to make critical treatment decisions without knowing of her mutation, Sue acted so others could benefit from her misfortune. She founded FORCE in 1999 to fill the information void for individuals and families with hereditary cancer, and to help them advocate for themselves.
With FORCE, no one needs to face hereditary breast and ovarian cancer alone.
My sister, Grace, had met Sue a few years ago at one of the first FORCE Conferences in Florida. That was long before I even knew or admitted that I was BRCA+. I remember accompanying Grace to Florida — she went to the conference; I went shopping. I knew nothing about BRCA. After all, denial and ignorance were powerful tools. It was there that Grace talked about meeting a woman named Joanna Rudnick who was screening a first copy of her film “In the Family.” Little did I know this would be a film that I would watch dozens of times over the next few years and then screen at my work.
In 2010, almost 1/2 way to my mastectomy, I was still unarmed with information about being BRCA, what it meant to be BRCA, or the surgery itself. In mid June 2010, Grace called me and said that she was flying to the FORCE conference in Florida; she asked me if I wanted to join her. I knew that I could not afford to fly to Florida, stay in Disney hotel, nor take the time off from work.
That’s when my phone rang.
“Hi, Liza. My name is Sue Friedman, and I am the Executive Director of FORCE. Your sister Grace told me that you are BRCA, considering your surgery, and that you would benefit from coming to the conference. I’d like to offer you a full scholarship — flight, hotel, meals, registration — if you would join us. I’m on the airlines website right now and we can pick a flight for you if you say ‘YES.’”
Within a week, I was on a plane headed to Florida.
Little did I know that this trip would change my whole outlook, attitude, and “toolbox of information” about being BRCA.
Immediately upon entering the conference, I met women who felt like Sisters. We shared something in common. We shared a genetic risk and a common experience. We would speak in language and heart that others could not quite understand; and we would both cry and rejoice in the same sentences. At the conference, I met young women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and fighting for their lives. I met young women who were diagnosed with breast cancer and just finishing treatment. And, I met young women like myself — previvors — who were trying to beat Cancer to the punch. While I’ve known women who have had cancer, it was shocking to see so many young women already affected. And, it was powerful to hear from older women who repeatedly gave the advice, “If I had only known earlier that I could have reduced risk through surgery, I would have done it.”
It was at the conference, too, that I would see my first look at Post-Mastectomy Breasts. In a “Show-and-Tell” session, women let others see their mastectomies and/or various types of reconstruction. While this was difficult for me to do, I left with a new sense of bravery, courage, and peace.
It was here, too, that I felt my words had meaning. For no less than a dozen times, women approached me and said, “Wow, you’re Liza! I’ve been following your blog!”
At this conference, I learned about ways to reduce my risk, about physical recovery and emotional recovery, health, diet, and friendship. I also began to learn about my risks of ovarian cancer — the next leg of my journey.
Post-mastectomy, I have been more active on the FORCE Community Message Board where I am now both reading and contributing. Post-mastectomy, I feel more connected to my BRCA sisters; We have battled the same beast and won.
While there have been so many incredible people in my life, particularly this year, I owe a great deal to Sue Friedman. For, without her, without FORCE, without the conference and ongoing support from women who also face a genetic risk, I might not have the strength; I definitely would not have the knowledge.
Thank you, Sue, for your tireless work in support for people who have a genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer. You made life easier to breathe.
Peace, love, and finding thanks,
PS Want to share YOUR influential person and give them a public shout out? Feel free to comment below and share the link!