By: Nancy G. Brinker
In 31 years as leader of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, it’s been my privilege to come to know and love the remarkable people facing breast cancer. Far too often, I’ve also come to know the incomprehensible grief of losing them to this disease, just as I lost my own sister, Suzy, 33 years ago.
Another of our guiding lights died last night. You have seen her on our website and perhaps in our national public service ads. Her name is Bridget Spence. She was 29 years old, and died peacefully in Boston, surrounded by her husband and family, and mourned by a global family of those who came to know her through the eloquence of her blog and her activism against this disease.
Bridget was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer when she was just 21 – a young person finishing up college, a time when her main worries should have been about starting a career, falling in love, getting married, planning a family and embarking on a long and full life. Instead, she would spend her 20s navigating surgical suites, oncology wards and clinical trials, learning the dreadful language of cancer.
It was a language she not only learned, but dedicated herself to sharing with others. She became a fixture at our Global Race in Washington, D.C., always with a ready smile, a boundless optimism, and a burning desire to spread the word about breast cancer in young women. She walked the 60-mile Komen 3-Day many times. She appeared at rallies for young women. She told of meeting Dr. Ann Partridge at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a Komen grantee specializing in breast cancer in young women. She wrote of her delight and gratitude for a doctor who scheduled treatments around Bridget’s wedding and honeymoon plans; preserving her eggs so that she might one day have children, and otherwise understanding the unique world of women in their 20s facing breast cancer.
Bridget spoke at a Komen conference last year, telling the crowd that she was standing there with tumors in her liver, lungs and bones, but she was standing there. And as long as she was standing there, she had hope. You can see a video of her speech here. I saw her not long after that at our Washington, D.C., Global Race. And she sent me a note late last year, just after she learned that the cancer had spread yet again. Another clinical trial. Another treatment. Another shot at hope.
Her last blog posting came on Dec. 26, and with her characteristic courage and candor, she shared with us the message that none of us could bear.
“It is time for me to ask each of you to let me go,” she wrote. “It is time to say goodbye.”
The cancer had invaded her lungs and was spreading again. She wanted only to spend the time left with her “Big Man,” her husband, who had given her a diamond for their last Christmas together. She was able to do that, and for that, we are all grateful.
I talked with Bridget and heard what I have heard many times before in too many women and men who are nearing the end of this cruel disease. The tiny voice, the struggle to breathe. And yet, a calm acceptance of what was to be.
To me, it was another life losing its light too early.
Even in Bridget’s final notes to us at Komen, she did not complain or question the unfairness of it all. She thanked all who had fought with her. She was grateful for the medical advances that allowed her to see one more Christmas.
She asked only that we not forget her. Of course, we never will.
No woman or man who dies from breast cancer is ever a statistic to us, and I was so grateful to be able to tell Bridget that we will remember her as we hoped she wished to be remembered, in ways that will help others.
In Bridget’s memory, and with our partner, New Balance, Komen’s Massachusetts Affiliate is establishing a program specifically to serve young people. Just 5 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women under 40, but they are often diagnosed at late stages (as Bridget’s was), when the cancer has started a deadly march through the body. Treatment is difficult and the social and emotional issues associated with the cancer are especially harsh to a woman just starting her life, as Bridget recounted so eloquently.
We also will redouble our efforts to educate and encourage participation in clinical trials for metastatic disease – the trials that Bridget credits with keeping her alive for one more year, one more month, and one final Christmas with her “Big Man.” Bridget understood the potential of these trials to provide treatments for aggressive and metastatic forms of the disease. She participated in these trials and encouraged others to do so as well. Since 2010, Komen has funded grants that include more than 80 clinical trials, each with the potential to better understand, or hopefully cure, breast cancer.
In these ways, and for the benefit of others, Bridget’s light will continue to shine in the lives of millions.
It goes without saying that I will miss Bridget dearly, just as I miss my own sister and as I know we all miss those women and men in our lives whose cancers have taken them too soon.
We will continue to fight for every person with this disease, until every person with breast cancer is cured, and there is no need for anyone, of any age, to worry about breast cancer ever again. That is our promise, to all women, to my sister 33 years ago, and to Bridget and all who loved her today.
Bridget, you will not be forgotten, and may you rest in peace.
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