Lee Newspapers: Sharla Tester: I am not fighting cancer alone, and no Montanan should

by Sharla Tester

The drive from Big Sandy to Great Falls is awfully familiar to our family. Jon drives those 70-some miles twice a week as he travels between our farm and the Senate. Often we drive together-for farm parts, haircuts, you name it. The drive is second nature. But lately, it has taken on a new meaning.

Because in early spring of this year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I found the cancer as many women do, with a lump. But I had a bit of a head start: breast cancer runs in my family – both my grandmothers had breast cancer, and my grandmother on my mother’s side, my mother, my sister, myself, and my daughter all have the same breast cancer gene. The knowledge that it’s genetic has helped serve as preventative medicine for our family- once I knew I was likely to get it, it empowered me to know what to look for and get screened regularly.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate between gender or age, and breast cancer is no exception.

Men get it too, and it isn’t shameful to talk about it, because men need to be aware of their own risk factors.

When it comes to breast cancer, monthly self-examinations are critical, because if caught early, it can save your life.

I knew from the beginning that my prognosis was good, and was lucky to feel full mostly of hope, not fear. This month, I completed my final round of chemotherapy, and I am have been very lucky to have few side effects. My husband and kids have been a remarkable support system.

The love and support of my family gave me the strength to face the uncertainties of cancer head-on. And at the end of the day, I know that I’m fortunate. Fortunate to have been blessed by the doctors, nurses, and health care workers at Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute in Great Falls that have given me top-notch care every step of the way. They were both professional, and personal, and made sure that every time I walked in those doors I never felt a sense of doom and gloom. And I feel more fortunate, still, that in a state where some folks have to travel for hundreds of miles to receive care, our 70-some mile drive was a pretty short hop.

And when you’re counting your blessings, it’s hard not to consider those that aren’t as fortunate.

How many Montanans face the fear of cancer diagnosis without the security of affordable health care? How many folks skip cancer screenings or go without treatment because a trip to the doctor would mean the choice between paying a medical bill or putting food on the table?

It’s only fitting that I received the last of my treatment during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I encourage everyone, women and men alike, to use this month as a reminder to take precautionary steps. Check yourself often. Get regular screenings. Early detection can save your life.

Now that my treatment is finished, the drive to Great Falls will be easier again. I still have work in front of me and the outlook is promising. But the many cancer patients with a tough road ahead will still be on my mind and in my prayers.

I am not fighting my battle alone, and no Montanan ever should.

Sharla Tester is a farmer living and working in Big Sandy. She is married to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.