Twenty years ago, at age 32, Cass Capel was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She underwent a large lumpectomy where the top third of her left breast was removed followed by six weeks of radiation treatment. Having breast cancer at such an early age was a major life-changing event for Cass and inspired her to examine her priorities in life.
At the time, she was in a dysfunctional marriage, recently left a stressful 55 hour a week job, watched three hours of soap operas a day, ate a lot of fast food, rarely exercised, and had no faith. She was beginning to contemplate the meaning of life, and wondered, “is this all there is?” She realized that she was simply settling for a marginal existence.
When she was diagnosed, her willingness to settle for mediocrity came to a screeching halt. After reading Love, Medicine and Miracles, she came to see her breast cancer as a metaphor for having to get something off her chest. She could no longer keep quiet about things that didn’t resonate with her values. She realized her spirit was being suffocated by having to keep things inside to avoid conflict. A divorce ensued. In the process, when she had limited financial resources, a few friends and no family nearby, she asked God for help for the first time in her life. Her prayer was answered the very next day in the form of a place to live for several months while she got back on her feet mentally and financially. Her spiritual journey had become a conscious one, and has continued ever since. Part of this journey incorporated making many necessary lifestyle changes as well, including meditation and regular exercise. She sees life as too precious to fritter away in front of a television, and eating unhealthy foods.
In keeping with her values, Cass knew it was important to have a positive impact in people’s lives. In January 1991, she attended a meeting to form a breast cancer organization, Save Ourselves (SOS). Save Ourselves was originally formed to raise awareness about the plight of women diagnosed with this disease and to increase funding to eradicate breast cancer. Rallies were held by Save Ourselves at the California State Capitol from 1991 through 1995. Save Ourselves was largely responsible for the passage of the Breast Cancer Act of 1993. This bill allows for free mammograms to women over 40 who cannot afford them, possibly saving lives through early detection. Save Ourselves has become a leading support system for thousands of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the greater Sacramento region. Since 1995, Cass has been instrumental in helping Save Ourselves establish breast cancer support groups that have helped many women on their personal journey with the disease. In addition, Save Ourselves has a public speaking bureau, conducts the “Check It Out” program (a program to educate young women on the importance of breast self exam), and a 24 hour hotline staffed by trained volunteers who are breast cancer thrivers (800-422-9747).
Cass’s own story of survival is wonderful. She met her current husband in 1989. When she was diagnosed in 1987, an oncologist and her radiation oncologist told her to “forget about having children,” for fear of fueling the fire of dormant cancer cells. Since that time attitudes have changed somewhat, especially for women with estrogen receptor negative cancer. Despite being told by two different fertility specialists that there was a less than four per cent chance of spontaneous conception, Cass and her husband, John, never gave up hope. Their mutual prayer was answered and they were blessed with an 11 ¼ pound baby girl, Ariana, when Cass was 45 years old. Shortly after Ariana’s birth, Cass learned (through an archival study) that her tumor was Her-2/neu oncogene amplified, which is usually an indicator of a more aggressive tumor. Initially she was fearful that she was in imminent danger of having a recurrence, especially after the stress of a pregnancy. That information has helped her keep her priorities in order, knowing that every day she has with her child and husband is a blessing. Her faith has helped her ease her fear of recurrence, or, as commonly referred to in the breast cancer community “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Sometimes it is good to look at the little humorous life lessons we learn from going through difficult times. Due to the cancer Cass was able to nurse Ariana with her right breast only. Ariana came to call Cass’s left breast the “cold best” (since it was cooler to the touch from the radiation), and she called the lactating breast (which was warmer) the “hot best.” Consequently, she always knew which faucet was hot and which one was cold when in the restroom by just imagining she was facing her mother. Ariana was simply amazed when she had a babysitter (who was nursing her infant) who had “two hot bests!”
After not only going through her own journey with breast cancer, but after knowing so many women who have been affected by and died from breast cancer, Cass continues in her dedication to help women understand and cope with their individual situations with this disease. Cass has been a wonderful supporter of this project as well and has helped in spreading the word about it through women in the support groups, expanding it in just a few short months. The other item Ally and I want to share is the common thread the women from the support groups all seem to share with us. Many do not know each other, but they all say how important these groups have been to them. Without them, they would not have been able to sustain the strength and support they so desperately need. These groups have been a godsend for them and they are so incredibly thankful for Cass and how she has helped them through one of the most difficult times of their lives.
To learn more about Save Ourselves, please visit their website at: www.save-ourselves.org.