Becky Haddad has been fighting breast cancer for more than thirty years. First, it came for her. Then it came for her family. Cancer has been a near-constant presence in her life, both because she’s been forced to overcome it and because she’s dedicated her life to raising awareness and volunteer service.
In 1986, Haddad was diagnosed with breast cancer and took the most aggressive route: a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. But then Becky’s sister, Marlene, was diagnosed with breast cancer only three years later. Marlene chose to undergo a lumpectomy and radiation (no chemo) and the cancer returned a few years later. In 2001, after ten years fighting cancer, Marlene suffered a stroke and died.
Another ten years passed before the disease struck the Haddad women again, this time taking Becky’s youngest daughter, Beth. Three days before she died, Beth told her mother, who was traveling at the time, “I’ll wait for you, mom.” But cancer waits for nobody, not even a 38-year-old mother of two.
With so much tragedy in one family, one might wonder how someone can press on with hope for others. But that’s exactly what Becky Haddad has done. Last spring, the tireless volunteer was honored with the Susan. G Komen Colorado Ambassador Award for her more than 25 years of efforts to educate all communities about breast cancer. Recently, I sat down with Becky in her living room in Denver, where she’s lived for 50 years, to hear more about her story. Gazing down at us from the mantle was a framed photo of her deceased daughter, Beth.
5280: How did you first find out about your breast cancer diagnosis?
BH: It was found during a routine mammogram when I was 43. Throughout the treatments I was working and taking care of three kids (ages 9, 10 and 13). At that time the guideline for having a mammogram started at age 40. A few years later it was changed to 50, before being switched back to 40. Had it been 50 when my tumor was growing, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. I wanted to live, so I did everything I could. Several years after a double mastectomy, I had a hysterectomy. I knew breast cancer could turn to ovarian cancer, and I didn’t want to take any chances with that either.
How did you initially get involved as a volunteer?
I had insurance when diagnosed and I wanted to help people in my community less fortunate than me. In February 1992, I joined a preliminary meeting to start a [Susan G.] Komen chapter in Denver. My friend and I became co-chairs of the education committee. On a cold and rainy day in 1993, we hosted the first Race for the Cure in Denver. I thought nobody would show up for the event, but more than 3,000 people came. In 1997 I was invited to go to the Komen headquarters in Dallas to be a part of a new task force on breast health information. My father died the night before my flight, but I still went because I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to be involved. For years, I worked to organize health fairs, distribute educational resources, and teach others around the country how to educate their communities on breast health.
Tell me about your international experience promoting breast education in Eastern Europe when you were invited as an ambassador to the Global Breast Cancer Summit in Budapest.
The only mammogram equipment in one of the countries’ major cities we visited was in a very old building where a number of poor people sat waiting—most with advanced breast cancer. Some families sold everything they had to get treatment for a woman. Some diagnosed women didn’t tell their families because they didn’t want them to sacrifice everything.
Of all the work you’ve done, what you are most proud of?
I am very proud of the Multicultural Conference that I founded and chaired for ten years. It provides breast health information to underserved diverse communities (i.e. African-American, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic). This little UN for breast cancer helps educators learn how to approach cultures differently. The model for this conference I started in Denver was adopted by Komen affiliates around the country. Currently I chair the African American Advisory Council for Komen Colorado.
Currently, how are you most involved as a volunteer?
I am the patient advocate on a Komen Grant for a researcher at the University of Colorado at Anschutz. I give a patient’s voice to the research being done and also translate to lay terms the scientific research for patients. The researcher is studying the treatment as to why estrogen receptor tumors are resistant to the chemotherapy. I attend conferences around the country to learn about new breast cancer research and then disseminate that in the local community. In addition to community health fairs, I organize Pink Sundays during October. These usually involve giving a presentation at a church or passing out breast health information at a table.
The Grace Project captures intimate and raw portraits of women who have undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer. What was your response when you were approached about posing for The Grace Project in Colorado?
I am very private, so naturally I was reluctant. But, I decided that it was time for me to step out of my comfort zone, embrace who I am, and set an example for all women—to show them that there is life after breast cancer. Our bodies may have been broken, survived trauma, but our spirit is stronger and more powerful. The portraits, with or without reconstruction, show that we can be at peace with our bodies and be whole again.
It seems like medical imaging—inter-hospital sharing of mammograms—has a long way to go. What progress would you ideally like to see in this realm?
[I’d like to see] more wide spread information about breast health. More doctors’ offices, clinics, schools, libraries, community organizations would focus on mammography, self-breast exams, and how to determine risk.
After years of fighting cancer, losing family members and friends, and continuing to devote your life to volunteering in your community, what’s your relationship with cancer?
You’re either a survivor or a victim. And I’m not going to let it win. I’m not going to be a victim. Like Mary Tyler Moore said, I’m a flourisher.