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Cancer survivor stresses prevention

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July 23, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

BRANDON — Kerry Clifford had better things to do than go to that mammogram appointment 12 years ago. The Brandon resident had done it the year before and, like every time before that, the results showed she was healthy. Besides, she gave herself the occasional breast exam, and she had never felt any lumps.

So she called to reschedule.

But the results of that rescheduled appointment made her reevaluate once and for all the importance of regular check-ups. Her doctor showed her the mammogram and pointed out the beginnings of cancer.

“It was about the size of the tip of a pencil, but it had already set up what they call a spider web, the connection of little blood vessels, already growing,” she said. “That appointment was almost a year to the day from my last mammogram. That’s how quick it can be.”

They cut out the cancer, put her on medication and four months later, found her cancer had moved into more organs, meaning she was in Stage Four, “which is not good,” Clifford said.

About a year and a half ago she thought her body was rid of the disease. She thought the aches, the bad cough, were just signs of old age. After all, she said, she wasn’t 39 anymore. She had seven grandchildren and places her age somewhere beyond 65.

Doctors thought at first she had lung cancer. But after a CAT scan and biopsies on her lungs, they discovered it was breast cancer again. It had never left her body in the first place. Clifford has gone on new medication and undergone extensive radiation treatment and is in recovery.

This year, Clifford was faced with a shock of a different kind: she was named Vermont/New Hampshire Cancer Survivor of the Year by a committee of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.  

“The honor is overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve spent years going to this race.”

The race, which is held in Manchester, draws more than 3,000 breast cancer survivors and their friends and family each year. This year it is scheduled for Sunday, July 29.

Clifford has gone almost every year since she was first diagnosed. And she has spent the last five or six placing first in the power walk division. This year she will race, as usual, but she will also deliver a speech at the awards ceremony.

“I’ll keep it short and sweet,” she said.

Each year she brings her entire family, including her husband, Seth, her four children and seven grandchildren. For Clifford, racing is a blast, but the most important part of the event is the way it spreads information and awareness, while building a community of survivors and their loved ones.

Clifford and her family have tried to spread awareness, as well as raise funds for cancer research during the rest of the year, as well. Whenever the family celebrates a special event, like Seth’s 65th birthday or the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, they have planned party fund-raisers for both Race for the Cure and Relay for Life, another cancer organization.

“They’ve already come a long way with research, but they have not eradicated this,” Clifford said. “I would like to see that. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen in my lifetime. But my kids will continue the work and hopefully will not be afflicted.”

When asked why she thought the committee chose to honor her of all the cancer survivors, Clifford said she had no idea, she could have just as easily picked a name from a hat. So many women, including some of her co-workers at Neshobe School, have gone through the same experience.

“Our school nurse is now a survivor,” she said. “Our principal’s wife is a survivor. She was very young and she’s now doing well… a special educator at school was diagnosed just days before I was first diagnosed.”

Clifford remembered the day the special educator got a call from her doctor and had to leave work early.

“I watched her walking to her car, thinking to myself, ‘I wonder how I would feel?’” Clifford said. “Never gave it a thought that I could be next on that list.”

Clifford is feeling healthy these days, she said, though she still battles fear everyday.

“You just want a little more,” she said. “I have these grandchildren. And my husband and I still have things we want to do. We haven’t really retired. I love my job. I love working with my kids.”

“But you learn to really appreciate the ups and the downs,” she said. “If you don’t skin your knee every once in a while, you’re not living in the real world. There are dark times in everything. But you need to dig yourself out and search for the light.”

Finally, she stressed the importance of making those regular check-ups.

“You know what? You can do that other thing later,” she said. “Go for the mammogram.”

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