Survivor Stories: Audrey Graham


By Tess Malijenovsky
Audrey Graham’s home sits on the Coosaw River. There is a garden bed with leafy vegetables and boats in the yard. As soon as I met her, I met two of her grandchildren, her husband, Charles, and Freckles the dog. This is where a breast cancer survivor lives. This is what she looks like. What’s hard to imagine for the women who haven’t been diagnosed with breast cancer is how the women who have manage their diagnoses while still pursuing a life.

Audrey Graham and her dog Freckles.

Audrey came to me passionately seeking to shed awareness on a retreat called Casting for Recovery, a program that focuses on “wellness instead of illness and on empowerment as opposed to helplessness” by bringing breast cancer survivors together on a fly fishing retreat free of charge.
“It was wonderful,” Audrey beckoned. “I had to prove to myself that I could drive to North Carolina by myself. Before cancer, I was really independent. But after cancer, I couldn’t do anything on my own. I drove to North Carolina and didn’t know anybody there, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me after cancer.”
In February of 2003, Audrey passed her routine mammogram test, but just later that year she knew something wasn’t right when her right breast felt much harder than the left. At the time, Audrey was preoccupied with a probate and the difficult passing of her mother. “I was at work in my cubicle,” she recalled, “and I heard my mother’s voice and she said, ‘Call the doctor right now. Take care of the problem and don’t wait.’ ” That same day at the hospital, Audrey was so adamant about her intuition that she ordered a tissue biopsy after passing yet another mammogram.
It was breast cancer, receptive to the estrogen hormone. The diagnosis meant a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, reconstruction, a period of estrogen-blocking medicine and a long five-year recovery.
Audrey’s testament to her family’s support nearly brought me to tears. Love is a husband you’ve been married to for 50 years who would cup his hands for you to get sick if you were too weak to make it to the bathroom. Love is your children and grandchildren who make a banner out of a sheet and hang it up between the trees outside of your window so that whenever you look outside you see, “I love you, Nanny.”
No one in Audrey’s family ever had breast cancer before. While the causes of cancer still remain unclear, each survivor has her theory. “I was always on birth control for years and years, when they were higher in hormones than they are now. Then I took hormone replacements when I was 40 after a hysterectomy, and a high dose of Premarin [an estrogen medication],” said Audrey. “My feeling, my opinion, is that the hormones we put in our body are causing cancer.”
Then Audrey read a book titled “Time is a River” by Mary Alice Monroe that ultimately brought her to Casting for Recovery in 2009. “A lot of people say, well I don’t really want to even fly fish, but once they get there they get all excited about the fly fish,” said Audrey.
“You’re out with fellow people, but you don’t have television. You don’t have telephone. You don’t have any of that stuff because you’re right there with a bunch of women that have the same problems as you do. And you create bonds that go on.”
This weekend, for the first time ever, Casting for Recovery is hosting a two and a half day retreat in the Lowcountry on Bray’s Island. Each woman will get one-on-one instruction in the basics of catch-and-release fly fishing. The range of motion is particularly beneficial for anyone who’s had a mastectomy or lumpectomy. They’ll do crafts, they’ll talk, they’ll sing as they reconnect with the world around them. To enter the pool of applicants, visit www.castingforrecovery.org.

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