Daily Herald American Cancer Society
Bloomingdale survivor shares message with teens

"It truly lightens my load to be able to give something back," says Jerilyn Willin, 53, a 17-year Bloomingdale resident who shares her story of breast cancer survival with teen girls throughout the suburban area.

Jerilyn Willin
Jerilyn Willin

Peer counselors

The mission of Breast Cancer Network of Strength is to ensure that no one faces breast cancer alone. YourShoes (tm) is a Breast Cancer Network of Strength peer support program that includes a 24/7 breast cancer support center staffed by trained breast cancer survivors and providing peer support through a toll-free hotline, e-mail and support groups.

Peer counselors may be contacted at 800-221-2141, with interpreters available in more than 150 languages.

"Sharing the breast cancer message of prevention and early detection is vital and something every teen girl needs to hear," says Willin, whose private consulting firm specializes in career transition strategies, performance and organization development, team effectiveness and leadership development.

Diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2003, Willin draws from personal experience as she speaks with suburban high school seniors as part of Breast Cancer Network of Strength's award-winning Just for Teens breast health workshop.

Since its inception in 1990, the program has brought information on breast self examination and early detection to more than 140,000 students.

With one in eight women who live past the age of 85 expected to develop breast cancer in her lifeline, Willin says the message is especially poignant.

While the risk for teens is low - one in 100,000 under age 25 - Willin says it's the three-pronged approach to early detection and breast self exam skills that are especially important for young women to be introduced to.

"We stress the importance of monthly breast self-exam and encourage teens to have a clinical breast exam by a physician as part of their annual health exam, and to begin receiving annual mammograms at age 40," says Willin, who both speaks professionally and shares her expertise as a three-year program volunteer with teens at schools including Naperville North, Naperville Central and Hinsdale Central.

It was breast self-exam that led Willin to ask her doctor about a suspicious left breast lump she discovered in April 2003 while showering.

"After palpating the painful lump, my gynecologist reassured me that my mammogram just six month earlier was fine and that cancer usually doesn't hurt," she recalls. "On her recommendation, I consulted a breast surgeon and the very next week had both a mammogram and biopsy."

Willin was stunned by the breast cancer diagnosis. After discussing treatment options, she chose to have a lumpectomy to remove a 1.3 cm tumor at Advocate LaGrange Memorial Hospital.

With a positive sentinel node biopsy, recommended treatment also included eight rounds of chemotherapy and 36 radiation treatments.

"Before my hair fell out I went to Naturally Yours and was fitted for a very good wig," she says.

"Because my dad and grandmother had died of cancer, I feared letting my 90-year-old mother know of my own diagnosis. I did tell my sister, but my mother never knew since I still looked the same."

While hair loss wasn't so traumatic due to the wig, Willin says losing her eyelashes and eyebrows one month before treatment ended was shocking.

"That's the only time I think I looked sick," she says. "I always tell teens that you never know who is facing a breast cancer diagnosis. It's surprising how breast cancer has already made an impact on many of their lives. Most know someone who has faced or is facing breast cancer. Talking about breast cancer, the importance of early detection and sharing our own stories provides the girls with a powerful message."

Willin says it's especially interesting to learn of teen concerns, misconceptions and fears.

"It's amazing for some to learn that cancer isn't catching and that piercings don't cause cancer," she says.

"Some ask about the impact of breast implants, others want to know of you can nurse a baby after a cancer diagnosis and some wonder if underwire bras or getting hit with a dodgeball can cause breast cancer."

"It's still at the back of my mind, but most times I don't think about it," admits Willin, who will celebrate her five-year survivorship milestone this month. Knowledge is power, she says, and expresses hope that if the teens or someone in their lives is touched by breast cancer, they will be better prepared."


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