October 20

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: A Survivor’s Story

What began as an ordinary spring day in early April 2008 took a shocking turn for Dale Aiken and altered her life forever. Visiting her doctor for a routine yearly check-up and physical, the physician discovered a lump on her breast.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Aiken, the GWCCA’s executive office project specialist, is a breast cancer survivor. It’s a status that becomes more poignant as each October passes, bringing with it the pink-hued reminders of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and events such as the Susan G. Komen 3-Day 60-mile walk, which was anchored last weekend (Oct. 13-15) at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“I try not to think about it every day,” she said. “But, I am a survivor. It is me now. I embrace it. I don’t let it limit it me. It doesn’t define me.”

Aiken, who was worked for the Authority for 13 years, agreed to share her story with Catalyst in hopes that it would spur the GWCCA’s women – and men – to be vigilant about screening for breast cancer.

Other than some forms of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, regardless of race or ethnicity.

It is important for women, especially those 40 and older, to perform a self-exam at least once a month, Aiken said.

Also, medical experts recommend having a thorough medical check-up once per year, and begin annual mammograms between the ages of 45 and 50; and even earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer.

There are no steadfast, proven ways to avoid breast cancer, but studies have found that women who exercise vigorously and regularly are half as likely to get the disease.

And fellas, besides encouraging the ladies in your life to get screened, you must be aware that men can also be stricken by breast cancer.

“Don’t be in denial,” said Aiken. “Men have died from breast cancer, too.”

In the most recent data compiled by the Center for Disease Control, 2,141 men in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, with 465 of them succumbing to it. During the same period, 236,968 U.S. women were diagnosed with breast cancer, with 41,211 of them dying from it.

Flashing back to April 2008, Aiken is thankful her doctor found the suspicious mass during her physical.

It was detected early, but it was an aggressive form of cancer. And once the biopsy came back confirming that she had breast cancer, and after the initial shock wore off, Aiken decided to attack it aggressively.

But, as the late Tom Petty famously sang, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

Aiken tried to keep her situation very private, but when the day of the biopsy came, she began to panic.

The fear of the unknown began to take hold.

“I was scared to death,” she recalled.

But she didn’t have to search far for comfort.

She called Susan Graveline, a breast cancer survivor, co-founder of Mothers and Daughters Against Cancer and wife of then-executive director of the GWCCA, Dan Graveline.

“I could not do this on my own,” she said. “I needed somebody that had been through it.”

Susan Graveline offered to meet her at the hospital for the biopsy procedure, and once Aiken got there, she called her confidant back, who asked which room she was in.

She didn’t know, so she had to look it up – and much to her surprise – she found out she was in the Susan Highsmith Graveline Breast Cancer Resource Room at Piedmont Hospital. “I’m in your room!”

Aiken needed the support of friends and family when the biopsy confirmed that she had Stage 1 breast cancer.

She was determined to do battle, and scheduled surgery, which involved the removal of two tumors and two lymph nodes, roughly two weeks after her doctor’s initial discovery.

Then came the post-operation phase – the really miserable part.

She opted for chemotherapy, and as a result her hair started falling out. She had her son-in-law initially shave her head, but then, in an effort to make her grandchildren understand what was going on, let them wield the razor, too.

Chemotherapy was followed by radiation treatment every week day for six weeks.

Meanwhile, Aiken was still working a regular schedule as the Authority’s executive assistant to the executive director, helping her establish some mental and emotional normalcy as she recovered physically.

She also turned to two family members who had battled cancer – one helped her with the physical struggles, and the other gave her spiritual support.

Always an active person who enjoys biking, running, dancing, and gardening to stay fit, Aiken participated in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day two weeks after her radiation treatment ended.

She has an emotional attachment to the event, and last Friday went down on the floor of Building A to explore the set up and browse through the various merchandise and memorabilia booths – a personal ritual.

The three-day 60-mile walk is broken up into three segments, with participants spending the night at “camp,” set up in the GWCC’s Building A, replete with a virtual sea of pink tents provided for the groups of walkers to recharge. “When I see the pink tents – it’s emotional and powerful,” said Aiken.

GWCCA’s Dale Aiken (right) with her daughter and two of her grandchildren at the Susan G. Komen 3-Day in 2008.