The sun seems to shine just a little more brightly when Betty Caldwell is around. A striking woman with luminous hazel eyes and a warm smile, Betty has always approached life with a determined attitude. Her ambition led her to pursue a successful, decades-long career in management. She worked with city officials in championing efforts to improve her neighborhood. She’s a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. But over the years, Betty often found herself longing for something more.
In 2014, “something more” came to fruition, though not in the way Betty expected. Betty’s annual mammogram showed suspicious findings, triggering a follow-up biopsy. The day after the procedure, Betty’s doctor called to inform her that she had Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma in her left breast. All of her prior mammograms had been normal.
“It was the worst day of my life,” recalls Betty. “I’d never known anyone with breast cancer, and I assumed it was a death sentence.” Her mind filled with frightening visions as she imagined becoming weak from chemotherapy and radiation and ultimately succumbing to her illness.
With reassurance from her doctor and nurse navigators, Betty felt more optimistic about her diagnosis, but she was still anxious to proceed with treatment and put cancer behind her. In October 2014, she underwent a unilateral mastectomy. The surgery went smoothly, and Betty came home the next day. As she began the process of healing, Betty received much-needed good news: the doctors had not found any cancer in her lymph nodes, which meant no chemotherapy or radiation.
Her medical treatment was complete, but Betty’s journey was just beginning. Adjusting to her new normal was overwhelming at first, and she struggled with depression. “I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see my scars,” Betty says. She remembers talking with her nurse, who had also battled cancer, and asking, “How long did it take you to stop crying?”
Betty’s nurse told her about ABCD, and soon Betty connected with Judy, an ABCD Mentor who had previously been diagnosed with a similar type of breast cancer. “Judy was wonderful,” says Betty. “She was always there to listen to my problems and respond to my concerns.”
As Betty healed both physically and emotionally, exercise, healthful diet, and spirituality took on a greater role in her life. Less than two months after surgery, Betty returned to her regular routines, including practices with her bowling team. She also became an avid gym member and started taking a weekly dance class.
Betty’s experience as a breast cancer patient inspired her to spread awareness about the illness. She participated in Bowl Over Breast Cancer, a fundraising event hosted by the Milwaukee Bucks to benefit the Columbia St. Mary’s Foundation Breast Cancer Program. She also volunteered with Sisters 4 Cure, a Milwaukee organization that educates the community on ways to prevent breast cancer, reduce the risk of recurrence, and improve quality of life.
A diligent patient who continues to get her mammogram annually, Betty especially wants to raise awareness about the importance of breast cancer screening in the African American community, where deaths due to the disease are disproportionately high. Betty understands intimately the barriers to obtaining preventive care in her community, noting that there is limited knowledge about the disease, compounded by a lack of economic resources. In addition, media depictions of breast cancer mainly feature non-African American women. Betty’s dream is to be on a billboard someday, promoting breast cancer screening as part of an overall commitment to health. “My goal is that another African American woman would see it and say, ‘Hey, she looks like me, and she’s healthy now because she got her mammogram. Maybe I should, too.’”
Betty’s desire to give back to her community ultimately led her back to ABCD, where she is now training become a Mentor. Following her training, Betty will be the new African American Community Liaison, helping to educate others about early breast cancer detection and the services ABCD offers.
“Right after I was diagnosed, all I wanted was to just go back to the way things were before,” Betty explains. But as her journey progressed, from patient to survivor to advocate, she realized she didn’t want to go back. There’s a new sense of purpose in her life now, and she’s noticed a clarity that wasn’t there before. As Betty puts it, “I’m not the same person I was; I’m better.”
Written by ABCD Board Member Gina Rich
For information about ABCD’s African American Community Liaison Project: Judy@abcdmentor.org