by Lou Mancinelli

If it were not for advances in medicine and increased knowledge and public awareness of breast cancer throughout the past 30 years, Marlene Lally, a former Chestnut Hill resident and a Chestnut Hill Community Association board member, fears she might have met the same fate as her mother and her grandmother, both of whom died from breast cancer in their 40s.

“When my mom was diagnosed [in 1980], even with four daughters you did not talk about it,” said Lally, 49, a breast cancer survivor, during a recent interview,  “She thought she was so fit it wouldn’t affect her.”

And her mother had reason to believe it. She was fit, athletic and a successful competitive amateur golfer and tennis player. She was also one of the many women who lived in an era where knowledge and awareness about breast cancer was limited. One year after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she died at age 45. Lally was 18.

In 2011, there were more than 2.6 million survivors of breast cancer in the United States alone, according to breastcancer.org, based in Ardmore, and about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime, according to the group’s website.

However daunting the statistics of the amount of women who are diagnosed with cancer, numbers of survivors and their stories are just as empowering.

That each October America celebrates National Breast Awareness Month is the difference between millions of women becoming afflicted with breast cancer, and millions of women being educated about it and becoming proactive in the fight to beat the disease, according to Lally. It is the difference one generation can make.

Many years after her mother’s death, Lally, who was raised in North Jersey, began her own home screening at age 36, aware of her family history and with the knowledge of how to check herself for signs of breast cancer. Efforts to educate and to treat the public through organizations like the Susan G. Komen For the Cure, a group Lally now works for, have made the disease a common household concern.

Had she waited until she was in her mid-forties to screen herself, like her mother and grandmother who did not know better, Lally, a 1984 LaSalle University graduate, said she might have detected the lump in her chest too late.

In December 1999, at 37, she was diagnosed with a stage three aggressive breast cancer. She underwent surgery and a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the Rosenfeld Cancer Center at Abington Memorial Hospital.

“The biggest thing I was afraid of was for my kids,” Lally said. “My fear was leaving them.”
She knew what it was like to lose parents. Before losing her mother, her father passed away when she was seven, after he suffered a heart aneurysm.

“It’s not the greatest year,” Lally said about her year of treatment. “But it’s amazing what they can do if you can put that year behind you.”

While she underwent treatment, Lally, who lives in Wyndmoor, continued to work at Chestnut Hill Academy as assistant business manager. Since battling and beating breast cancer, she became an independent Wilson Reading Specialist, a tutor who helps children and adults overcome reading deficits.

She was a member of the Hope Afloat USA Dragonboat Racing Team. She has participated in four sprint triathlons, a race that includes a half-mile swim, a13-mile bike ride, and a five-kilometer or five-mile run. Lally also ran in this year’s Broad Street Run.

And because of the discomfort she experienced in the hospital while she underwent treatment, Lally designed her own line of pajamas complete with inspiration and meditative sayings for cancer patients. She said writing and other creative outlets help to heal and to clear her mind.

A few years ago, when Lally’s children were in college, she decided she wanted a change in her career. She had been volunteering with members of the Komen For the Cure for a number of years. She met with Komen’s Philadelphia Affiliate CEO Elaine Grobman to talk about a position with the right kind of challenge. Two years ago, she applied, interviewed and was hired as Komen’s Philadelphia operations manager and volunteer coordinator.

At Komen, Lally oversees For the Cure’s three major fundraising events, including the Walk for the Cure along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Mother’s Day and its three major educational events. She said the work was challenging and fast-paced for a staff of 11. It is the more than 1,000 volunteers who comprise the bulk of the group’s efforts.

According to Lally, more than 1,000 women attend the educational events. The next, Sisters for the Cure, a march Lally said is a tribute to African-American women, is in December, followed by the Latinas for the Cure in March and the Asian-American Health Day in June.

In addition to providing free mammograms and treatment information for women, the events are meant to be cultural affairs designed to make it more acceptable to talk about breast cancer and to eliminate fear about the subject, according to Lally.

It is important for all women to have clinical breast exams at least every three years, starting at age 20 and every year after age 40, a Komen For the Cure pamphlet advises women.

Breast cancer is a type of cancer in which cells in the breast divide and grow without normal control. Tumors in the breast tend to grow at a slow rate. By the time a lump is large enough to feel, it may have been growing for as long as 10 years, according to the Komen For the Cure website. But some tumors are aggressive and grow much faster.

The most common symptoms of breast cancer are a change in the look or feel of the breast, a change in the look or feel of the nipple and nipple discharge. There may be a lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area. There might be swelling, redness, or dimpling and/or puckering of the skin.

According to Lally, 75 percent of the money raised by Komen stays in the 13 counties they work with in the tri-state area, while 25 percent goes to research. With the money, thousands of women receive free screening and free treatment.

“Every single day there is a woman calling the office saying I lost my job, or my husband lost his job, or they can’t find a job and they just found a lump,” Lally said. “Or it is time for their annual mammogram checkup.”

Across the tri-state area, with the money collected from its fundraisers, members of the Komen For the Cure have set up arrangements with dozens of health institutions who can provide women with free screening and treatment. In addition to the hundreds of educational presentations given by its members each year, the group offers up to $100,000 in screening and treatment grants, and up to $30,000 in educational grants.

“Komen has changed the face of breast cancer forever,” Lally said. “I am the ‘poster woman’ for Komen. Within one generation they have changed the course of a family’s history.”