Sarah Morse, 72, lives in San Francisco's Fillmore District. She and her husband have three grown children and six grandchildren, and they enjoy visiting their renovated 1956 Airstream, parked on the hillside of a friend's Sonoma County vineyard. Morse is also a breast cancer survivor. After being diagnosed at 59, she was certain she didn't have a chance of surviving but swore that if she did, she would find a way to help others.
Coping With Breast Cancer That Spans Three Generations
Today, Morse is cancer-free – and living up to her promise.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 59. Did you have a family history?
My mother and her mother died from breast cancer. I was 14 when my mom was diagnosed as terminal, and 21 when she died. By the time I was an adult, I was really spooked about it. I always faced breast cancer with fear and dread.
How did you discover you had cancer?
I went in for my regular annual exam with my gynecologist. She did a breast exam and said, "I feel something here." She asked if I could feel it and I couldn't. My heart was jumping out of my mouth. She said, "Can you go down the hall and have a mammogram?" I did, but the mammogram showed nothing.
That night at home I got a phone call. It was 8:20, and it was my doctor. She said, "I can't stop thinking about you. I am sure I felt something. Will you please come in and have an ultrasound?" I was quaking in my boots. Sure enough, there was a tumor – way in the back – that hadn't shown up on the mammogram. She caught it.
I wrote her a letter on the 10th anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, saying thank you for being diligent and for doing your job. Her gut feeling was correct. I am so grateful.
What happened next?
They did a needle biopsy and it was malignant. I was terrified. I cried. I was sure I was a goner. I was flooded with all my memories of my mother, whose cancer went to the other breast within a year.
How did you cope?
I saw Deborah Hamolsky, a nurse at UCSF who provides emotional support for breast cancer patients like me. I walked in with slumped shoulders and a downer attitude. I came out with the tools for coping. And she taught me to arm myself with as much knowledge as I can.
I also joined a support group through UCSF's Patient and Family Cancer Support Center. I got tremendous support from talking with other women who had been through cancer. It's different from talking to your sister or your best friend who haven't heard those words, "You have cancer." Talking to people who have been there gave me new hope and a beacon of light.
How was your breast cancer treated?
I only had cancer in one breast, but because my mom's cancer spread so quickly to the other breast – and I had so much fear about that – I wanted a double mastectomy, which is the most aggressive treatment.
So you did it?
Yep. I went ahead with it and have never regretted it. I didn't have to have chemotherapy, but I did take two drugs that interfere with estrogen levels. Five years of popping tamoxifen followed by another five of letrozole, also a pill, seemed a small price to pay to hear "You're just fine."
And you're now a volunteer in UCSF's Peer Support Program, and you talk to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.
Yes. I'm there to talk to anyone who needs it. Some women want to know what it's like to have a mastectomy and I have no problem showing off my 13-year-old-boy chest. One woman said, "I am shocked you did that, but I'm so glad you did."
You seem pretty happy about your decision to have the double mastectomy.
Oh, yes! And it does have its benefits. If I buy a jacket and it doesn't fit around the middle, I don't wear a bra. If I want to look like Dolly Parton, I put on my Dolly Parton bra!
You weren't interested in breast reconstructive surgery?
No. I've been married to the same guy for a billion years. He just wanted me alive. He encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, and I didn't see any reason for it.
And I look good! There isn't any scarring. I'd like to be the poster girl for a good mastectomy. Really!
How did you feel on the day of your surgery?
I don't live far from UCSF's Mount Zion campus, so I walked to my mastectomy holding hands with my husband and three kids. It was 5:30 in the morning and dark. I never felt alone that day.
And you are cancer-free?
Yes! But if you can believe it, I had a spot on my lung two years after my breast surgery. I thought, "I'm cooked now." They took this blob out, and it was not malignant. But the same day that I had my lung surgery, my husband got the results of his routine PSA test. He had prostate cancer.
Is he OK?
He had a radical prostatectomy. People ask us, "How's your sex life?" and we say, "Well, we're missing a lot of our body parts!" But he's clean now too. We're lucky people.
Besides the Peer Support Program, you do other volunteer work at the hospital.
On Tuesdays I don my volunteer blue vest and serve lunches to patients at the Ida Friend Infusion Center. I can also be found escorting people to appointments and answering questions in the lobby at Mount Zion and the Cancer Center.
When you're serving lunch, what do you talk about?
I say, "Guess what, I've been in your shoes." I've met a lot of fabulous people by volunteering. And my husband and I have been treated extremely well.
Why is volunteering important to you?
I promised if I could get out of this mess, I would give back. And I'm here!