ARLINGTON — For thousands of Americans, the month of October means donning pink shirts, pink shoes, pink ribbons and more as part of their effort to support National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
In Snohomish County, that includes the thousands who have been diagnosed with the life-threatening illness.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 254,650 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed among women in the United States in 2009 — the same year that Caryn Brown, wife of Arlington High School basketball coach Nick Brown, was diagnosed.
“Three years ago, the Wesco coaches decided to do a Coaches vs. Cancer game, with one Wesco league school hosting it,” said Brown. “It ended up being meaningful for our team because I was diagnosed a month later.”
Brown’s first chemotherapy treatment coincided with the first CvC game hosted by Lake Stevens with Arlington visiting. The local focus on breast cancer awareness is important to Brown, who said she’s seen the first-hand effects of a community fighting together.
“With the pink socks and pink ribbons, people are starting to become more aware. They get it. The awareness in this community is amazing. Especially in the younger age groups who are ready to fight cancer, because they know it’s important. It affects moms, sisters and grandmothers,” said Brown.
“I was leading a healthy life. I was eating right, taking vitamins, exercising,” she said. “In November of 2009, I went in for a routine physical and my doctor found a lump during the exam.”
Even the doctor was surprised. “He said, ‘It’s probably nothing, but let’s check it out anyway,’” Brown said. “I did the mammogram, the biopsy and on Dec. 4, 2009, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 2 breast cancer.”
Immediately after finding out she had breast cancer, Brown felt like a stranger in her own skin. “All of a sudden you feel your body is different. I felt like a leper in society, because there was this thing in my body that wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said.
Telling her family — which included her husband Nick, her daughter Peyton, then 10 years old, her son Ryan, then 8 years old, and her son Drew, then 1 year old — was not easy for Brown.
“The first thing my son Ryan asked me was, ‘Are you going to die?’, and I said, ‘No, we are going to fight this,’” she said. “That was definitely hard.”
After telling her family and members of the community, Brown began to feel a little bit stronger in her conviction to overcome the diagnosis.
“It’s doable. The key is support and you need to stay positive,” she said. “My support team was my family and this community. We needed to be taken care of and they did take care of us and we are so grateful.”
But despite having people to help her and her family, Brown still had to go through treatment. She underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
“The first step was the whole exam, dealing with the diagnosis and setting a plan with the oncologist,” she said. “Then the chemotherapy. During chemo, my friends came every time to chat and distract me. I didn’t have to think about why I was there.”
But radiation was a more painful process.
“I went every day for six weeks and that’s when the community really stepped up. You lay on the table, they strap you down and they are trying to isolate one area. Then they go behind this thick door during the treatment. The whole process of that appointment, the emotional and physical aspect, just drains you. Someone had to come and get Drew beforehand and I would drive myself alone,” she said. “Radiation is the worst. You are beaten down, emotionally and physically. You are just so tired, you want to give up. But you can’t. Your mind is crucial. When my last appointment was done, we had a huge celebration.”
Since her last radiation appointment, Brown has been returning to her life before her diagnosis.
“Since then I’ve felt great,” she said. “Once you get that call, you are a cancer patient. Right then and there everything changes for you. Everything did change, but we made it.”
Brown encourages women to take care of their bodies and to make regular breast health appointments.
“Cancer does not discriminate. I was 36 years old and healthy. I had no reason to go in except that it was my routine appointment,” she said. “But if you feel something go in right away. The key thing is early detection. If you feel like something is wrong, definitely go in.”
Supporting breast cancer locally is important on the individual level as well, Brown said.
“I hope that people help someone when they need it. Support means so much to people who are struggling. I hope that people get involved in building awareness and helping those who need it.”
Overall, dealing with a life-threatening illness meant keeping a positive state of mind for Brown. “Keeping a positive attitude is key. I’ve seen the difference,” she said.
And the Arlington basketball team also proved to be a force of support for their coach and his family.
“The boys really rallied to support me and Nick and the CvC game has turned into an annual pink night,” said Brown. “They wear pink laces, socks, wristbands. Those boys were with us from day one. They had to see their coach, their teacher, go through this. So many people stepped up to take care of Nick and our kids.”
In addition to the support from the community, Brown also received some positive perspective from the American Cancer Society and their local classes.
“I don’t know that many people are aware of what they offer,” she said. “Their classes are great, you learn what options there are.”
Relay for Life of Arlington was also a source of inspiration for Brown, as the first event coincided with the year she was diagnosed.
“Relay was key because it was the same year, and having the community come out and support research for breast cancer was amazing.”
The upcoming Pink Night basketball game for Arlington High School basketball is Jan. 18 versus Monroe, and Brown urges people to come.
“It’s our opportunity to bring the community into the gymnasium, for one night, to say, you know what? We’ve dealt with this and this is our night to celebrate. We feel like we owe so much to the community for helping us with the biggest fight ever.”