Cancer, the Unexpected Teacher
Above: Bernadette Scruggs at The Gathering Place’s 2019 Race for Place, sponsored by UH Seidman Cancer Center
An urgent reminder not to miss annual mammograms from a 15-year breast cancer survivor
Getting a mammogram every year is a ritual Bernadette Scruggs fulfills during her birth month. She never misses it. At 51, she learned she had cancer – and more courage and strength than she ever knew resided in her.
The University Heights woman is adamant about this ritual. Women take time for routine hair and nail appointments and makes sure their children and parents get to doctors. Yet less than an hour out of your life can mean the difference between catching cancer early or never knowing what could have been mitigated.
Bernadette Scruggs insists you’re worth it.
“Fear can either immobilize you or galvanize you,” Bernadette declares. “You have a choice here. I chose to let it make me stronger.”
Every year in February, she celebrates her birthday and gets a mammogram at University Hospitals. A ritual since she turned 40, the age at which mammograms are recommended annually by the American Cancer Society, Bernadette had never missed this annual milestone.
Her punctuality helped them catch HER 2 positive breast cancer in Stage 2. Despite her vigilance, she was still floored by the finding. She was immediately put at ease by surgical oncologist Robert Shenk, MD, who sat down across from her, crossed his legs, leaned back in his chair, and with a calm demeanor intoned, “How can I help you get through this?”
Bernadette exhaled – and she didn’t even realize she had been holding her breath.
Not just support, but hope
“As soon as he reassured me that we were going to get through this, I stopped feeling like a victim, like something had happened to me, and then I started feeling like a participant in my care,” recalls Bernadette of that fateful meeting 15 years ago. “I knew I was not in this all by myself. I know doctors are busy, but I didn’t get that feeling from him. I felt not just support, I felt hope.”
“I was getting my strength from the hospital. Because I’ve had this great support system, it shored me up. See, they knew I was a person with a history – and a future.”
A mother of two young boys at the time, Bernadette realized she could not forge through this cancer journey alone. She accessed The Gathering Place for services to help both her sons and herself, including healthy cooking classes and free massages. A support group for African Americans was particularly helpful. She vividly remembers the stirring moment a woman declared she was a 20-year cancer survivor. Bernadette vowed to speak those very same words herself someday. She even participated in a memorable play-writing workshop that resulted in a collaborative performance with multiple survivors called “From Breast Cancer to Broadway,” which was performed at the Cleveland Playhouse, Karamu House and an off-Broadway theater.
A good teacher
In some strange way, Bernadette found cancer to be a blessing. She learned she was stronger than she ever knew, and needed fewer material things than she would have ever believed. Having 100 pairs of shoes no longer mattered.
Through lumpectomies, a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Bernadette developed a profound appreciation for each and every day. She dedicated her energy to finding beauty and goodness in every hour.
When the phases of treatment mark your days, peace can be found in unexpected places. Cancer forced Bernadette to slow down and think differently. Cancer was a gut punch, she admits. But when she pulled herself together, she lifted her head higher.
“Now I am a better version of myself,” Bernadette say. “I can get through anything. I feel empowered, and that’s been liberating. I live fully in the moment now. That’s a blessing. I really appreciate my moments now and don’t forget to pay attention to the lessons right before me.
“Cancer has been a good teacher. It teaches you that you might not have a future, so what you’re left with is your present. It’s been empowering.”
Just one hour
Bernadette advises every woman to mark their calendar during their birth month for a mammogram appointment. Early detection is the best cure, she knows. You have a better outcome when cancer can be removed early. And you can’t deny reality. Avoiding cancer screenings doesn’t mean who won’t have cancer, it only means you won’t know about it.
“I get the oil changed in my car every six months, and this is only once a year,” says Bernadette, 66. “How could I take better care of my car than myself? It’s only one hour out of my life just to make sure I’m OK.”