Former Gov. Rell speaks about surviving breast cancer

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Oct. 10, 2011
Audrey Walker, of Ledyard, a four-year breast cancer survivor, chats with fellow survivor M. Jodi Rell. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Audrey Walker, of Ledyard, a four-year breast cancer survivor, chats with fellow survivor M. Jodi Rell. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell recalled stepping to the podium to make a speech at the opening session of the state legislature in 2004, just months after her unexpected swearing in – and just nine days after undergoing a mastectomy.

“I remember nothing about the speech,” she told the crowd at Backus Hospital’s Breast Cancer Survivor Day on Oct. 1. All she does remember is her determination to make the appearance. “The people of Connecticut need to know that I’m okay,” she told her doctor. “I promise I’ll keep it to 10 minutes.”

Rell was the featured speaker at the annual Backus event, which played to a packed house of 500 breast cancer survivors, family members and friends. The luncheon gathering kicked off the observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Rell shared her story of winning her battle against breast cancer with other women who have been down the same road.

Rell, who had been a vocal opponent of so-called “drive-through mastectomies” during her stint as lieutenant governor, replaced Gov. John Rowland the summer before her December 2004 diagnosis. Her cancer was discovered at a routine physical and subsequent mammogram. She said when her doctor said he was happy for her, she found his comment ironic in the extreme. “This is easy. Don’t you get it?” he replied. Her cancer had been caught early enough to give her a good shot at survival, he said.

Her very public diagnosis and treatment brought the attention of other cancer patients and their families, Rell said. She found herself fielding phone calls from women who wanted to talk about their struggles. She encouraged the cancer survivors at Backus to do the same.

“It makes a difference when you tell somebody what you’ve been through,” she said. “You can do wonders for people all across this great state.”

Fellow breast cancer survivor Rose Gerber, of East Lyme, the director of patient advocacy at Backus, told the crowd her story of being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. At the time, her two children were in kindergarten and third grade.

The average age for breast cancer diagnosis is 61, Gerber said. But, she observed, “Believe me, there’s no good age to get breast cancer, or any type of cancer.”

She was enrolled in a clinical trial for a new medication, thanks to what she called her doctor’s “progressive thinking.”

“I believe that’s a key reason why I’m here today,” she said.

Gerber urged her fellow survivors to take time to thank all the people who help raise their spirits during their fight. She recalled a receptionist at the hospital who always had an upbeat word and a smile for her. “It’s very easy to forget about all the other people who help us along on our journey,” she said. “If you get the chance, thank them.”

Dr. Dinesh Kapur, medical director of cancer services at Backus, acknowledged the “crazy breast cancer ladies” who have helped the hospital move along in treatment and support for breast cancer patients and survivors. He applauded their efforts at fundraising and advocacy.The hospital’s focus,

Kapur said, is providing a fully accredited breast cancer treatment center close to home for local patients. “Survivorship is personal. Survivorship is something shared with families and friends,” he said.

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