By now, just about everyone has heard the much-quoted statistic that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.
But when you're that one, statistics lose their meaning.
At 29, Sue Short never imagined she would spend the rest of her life fighting cancer. But neither did Betty Mitchell, who was 55 when a screening mammogram turned out not to be so routine. Nor Dr. Alan Johns, who, after years of seeing patients with breast cancer, found himself in their shoes.
This year, nearly 230,500 people in the United States will learn they have breast cancer. White women will get the diagnosis more than any other racial group. But black women will be more likely to die from the disease.
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Overall, 90 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer will be alive five years later. But like the statistics surrounding the lifetime risk of breast cancer, that's just another number.
Breast cancer affects real people, with children and spouses and lives to lead. Here are their stories.
The mother: Sue Short
A month before her 30th birthday, Sue Short noticed a bruise on her left breast.
A biopsy confirmed Stage I breast cancer. After a lumpectomy and radiation, Short was optimistic. She was also determined to have a baby, something doctors weren't so sure would ever happen for the wife and legal assistant from Plano.
But in 1993, just two years after the diagnosis, she gave birth to a daughter who would have a love of music, perfect pitch and special needs. Born with a rare genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, Sarah would have developmental delays.
For a while, the young mother was so busy with her family and career that she overlooked the pain radiating down her back. She was, after all, carrying around a toddler.
Her mistake, she said later, was thinking that if the cancer came back, it would return in her other breast.
"I learned my lesson," Short said. "It doesn't do that -- it goes to the bone or brain."
With a toddler to raise, she squeezed in chemo between potty training and bedtime stories. After about 18 months, the cancer was in remission. But it wouldn't last, and four years later Short was fighting cancer yet again.
Chemotherapy became a part of her life. When one doctor told her it was time for hospice, she found another doctor. She would make the trip from Plano to the Arlington Cancer Center several times a week, fitting it in between work, home and school. By then her daughter was in elementary school.
In 2007, when the cancer spread to her liver, she kept the news to herself.
What was the point of worrying her family?
"People freak out when they know it's in an organ," she said.
It was not until this summer, when surgery to remove the tumors from her liver offered a glimmer of hope, that Short told her family about the extent of the disease.
By then she had lived with cancer for 20 years -- long enough to see her daughter go to prom and homecoming. Long enough to get involved with the PTA at Plano East, where her daughter is a senior. Long enough to prepare Sarah for a time when she will no longer be around.
For someone who has endured chemo for more than a decade, Short, now 50, remains optimistic.
"Look at me and you'll see someone who has been here for 16 years with Stage IV cancer," she said. "This is how you live with cancer."
The couple: Jim and Betty Mitchell
Jim and Betty Mitchell had been married for eight years when a routine mammogram turned up a suspicious spot on her right breast.
It wasn't that large, but it was cancer, said Betty, who was 55 in 1989 when she got the diagnosis. She immediately underwent a radical mastectomy and set out to go on with her life as usual. Then just five years later, the unimaginable happened: Her husband, Jim, got the same diagnosis.
Jim, the more chatty of the two, found humor and meaning in their shared diagnosis.
"We both lost a right breast to cancer," he said. "Now when we hug, we fit together like a jigsaw puzzle."
It's that kind of glass-half-full attitude that got the Arlington couple through an experience that might easily derail other relationships.
Instead it drew these two independent souls closer together. Now retired, they share the ups and downs of marriage along with annual checkups with their oncologist at Arlington Cancer Center, where they have both gone for decades.
Today they view their cancer diagnoses as "just a part of life."
But that was hardly the case in 1994, when an episode about breast cancer in men on The Oprah Winfrey Show led Jim to look down at his chest, only to discover that his right nipple was inverted. He knew from the television show that he was looking at a common symptom of breast cancer, but he couldn't believe it.
"I was a big ol' strong farm boy," he said. "Something like a little cancer was not going to get to me."
Like his wife, Jim had a mastectomy. But his treatment did not end there, because the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. He would need 21 weeks of chemotherapy followed by 60 hours of radioactive implants.
Jim, 75, handled the news with his usual humor.
After he lost his hair to chemotherapy, he refused to wear a hat or cover his bald head.
Instead, he stuck a temporary tattoo of a bright red rooster on his scalp.
"It was my red badge of courage," said Jim, whose tattoo inspired others going through chemo to do the same thing. "It was my way of showing that I was fighting this monster."
That monster struck against the odds. Only 1 percent of breast cancer diagnoses are in men. And the chances that a husband and wife would both get breast cancer are slim, to say the least.
Although they have both had a few close calls over the years, the cancer has not returned for either Jim or Betty. Now retired, with lots of grandkids and great-grandkids between them, they enjoy their life together and try to encourage others fighting the disease.
"We want to give people hope," Jim said. "That's what you have got to have."
The advocate: Carlene King
In 2007, when Carlene King felt a small lump in one breast, she did not hesitate to get a mammogram.
But when no lump was found, she was bewildered.
"I couldn't understand how they could miss it," she said.
"I was never one to shy away from something because I was fearful of what might show up," she said. "I can't afford to be sick and down too long."
A sonogram finally found what King, then 45, suspected: She had Stage II breast cancer. A mastectomy and chemo followed in 2008.
King, a Fort Worth real estate broker and single mother to two daughters, had plenty to do, but she wanted to help others facing breast cancer. She viewed her diagnosis as another challenge to conquer.
"I felt like I was going through this for a reason," she said. "I saw it as an opportunity."
Educating other women about breast cancer became her mission and her passion, she said. Her goal was to reach the African-American and Hispanic communities through her nonprofit organization, Shades of Survival. She also volunteers with Komen for the Cure, Cancer Care Services and the American Cancer Society.
She speaks throughout the community, participates in health fairs and works directly with breast cancer patients.
"I've gone to doctors' appointments with women and held their hands," she said. "I do whatever they need."
Even though her lump was missed on a mammogram, she encourages women to get the annual exam starting at age 40.
"It's still crucial," she said. "But at the same time, don't depend just on that mammogram."
The tattoo artist: Cindy Davis
Cindy Davis clearly is not afraid of needles.
This is a woman who did her own tattoo -- and not just any cutesy butterfly on her ankle. After a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, Davis tattooed nipples on her own breasts.
"I figured, 'How hard can it be?'" she said. "You're just filling in circles."
Turns out there is a little more to it than Davis thought. To master the skill, she trained with an expert in cosmetic tattooing.
As a nurse and breast cancer survivor, Davis figured she was well-suited for the work.
"I figured women would rather have this done by a woman, especially a nurse," she said.
As a survivor herself, she was also attuned to the concerns breast cancer patients face.
With her pink bag filled with tattooing tools, she immediately puts women at ease. She uses all-natural pigments, which fade over time, unlike the ink used in other tattoos.
"I was concerned with particulates in some of the inks breaking down and floating into the lymphatic system," she said. "I'm real picky about that after having had cancer myself."
Davis' own breast cancer story started in 2008 when she was 48. After discovering a lump, the Arlington woman learned that she had ductal carcinoma throughout her left breast. The right breast had precancerous cells.
"I had both breasts removed, reconstruction surgery and chemo," she said.
She was left to deal with side effects, including neurological problems and short-term memory loss. But Davis said she's alive, so she's not complaining.
"Doing the tattoos is therapeutic for me," she said. "And I'm a big believer in paying it forward."
The volunteer: Joan Katz
Joan Katz has a big year ahead.
In June it will be 30 years since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and 20 since her second bout with the disease.
It's also the 20th anniversary of the Race for the Cure in Tarrant County, which Katz has been an instrumental part of since the start. And she'll turn 60.
"This will be a very symbolic year for me," she said. "It's very humbling."
Katz is not one to draw attention to herself, but her work in Tarrant County has made it impossible to keep a low profile.
She was undergoing treatment for breast cancer when her old college roommate, Rozanne Rosenthal, decided to start the first Race for the Cure in Tarrant County in honor of Katz. While still in treatment, Katz wanted to get involved with the Tarrant County affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and as soon as she got through chemo, Katz joined Rosenthal and together they founded the affiliate. Since then, the annual race has raised $20 million over 20 years.
Her dedication to helping survivors is well-known around Fort Worth and is one of the reasons the Joan Katz Breast Center at Baylor All Saints is named after her.
"I never wanted to be a public figure," she said, noting how uncomfortable she is with having a building named after her.
But her own story of survival is just as remarkable as her volunteer work.
She was just 30 when the disease was diagnosed in her right breast and she had a mastectomy. Almost a decade later, cancer -- unrelated to the first diagnosis in 1982 -- showed up in the other breast. Then, at 44, a tiny bump under her right arm proved to be cancer yet again.
"People would ask, 'How can you have breast cancer three times?'" she said. "But I did."
She went through surgery and chemo. And as she did before, she went on with her life as a busy mother and volunteer.
"You can't go through health things like this without realizing how fragile life is," she said. "I don't put things off -- I know what is really important in life."
For Katz, that has meant spending time with friends and family. But it has also meant her continuing work surrounding breast cancer. Last year the Tarrant County Medical Society recognized her outstanding contributions to healthcare.
As she looks forward to 2012, Katz said she is grateful for another year.
"Someone asked me what I wanted for my birthday," she said. "I just want to be healthy."
After all she has survived, that simple wish takes on a whole new meaning.
The doctor: Alan Johns
When his patients complain about hot flashes and mammograms, Dr. Alan Johns is quick to empathize.
The Fort Worth gynecologist has been there.
In 1998, he found a small lump on one breast and noticed that his nipple was inverted. He put off getting a biopsy for three months, knowing what the diagnosis would be.
"I did everything I could to ignore it," he said.
When he finally got a biopsy, everything changed in an instant, and the doctor suddenly became the patient.
"I have taken care of women just about my whole life," he said. "Then all of a sudden I have a woman's disease."
What he learned as a breast cancer patient changed his life and the way he practices medicine. In his recently released book The Lump, he chronicles his journey with candid humor, describing, for example, the chaos that was created when he showed up at the mammogram suite filled with partially clothed women.
But the real purpose of the book is less about himself and more about helping women deal with breast cancer from the time they get "the call."
When he made the switch to the person on the exam table, Johns began seeing all the challenges his patients faced, from mounds of paperwork to the anxiety that comes with every scan or blood test.
"Doctors order CT scans and think nothing about it," he said. "But when you're the one lying there, your mind just races."
He went through many of the same experiences his patients endure, but as a physician, he had one advantage: He knew how to navigate the system and he had connections in the medical world. He offers his insight throughout his book, which is peppered with his personal challenges.
He continued working when his hair came out in handfuls but never addressed it with patients unless they asked. Most thought he lost a bet, he said. One thought he had been wearing a hairpiece and had finally decided to go natural.
When his doctor recommended that he take tamoxifen for five years, Johns asked how it affected men. His physician told him it causes hot flashes in women but he didn't know any men who had even taken it.
Later, while seeing a patient, he had his first hot flash. The patient picked up on the symptoms right away and told him what his problem was.
It's that kind of humor that helped Johns get through cancer, and it's something he hopes others will benefit from as well through his book, which he spent six years writing.
It's a book that's really for women, written by a man, but his message of hope and humor is aimed at everyone diagnosed with cancer.
"In the end, you just gotta survive this thing," he said.
Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664