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Young Breast Cancer Patient Finds Outlet in Activism

November 18, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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After Dikla Benzeevi was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at 32, she formed a network of young cancer survivors. Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming reflects on her story of strength and achievement.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming tells the story of a young woman fighting for survival.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist: The calls come with regrettable frequency. Another friend or friend of a friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease that seems to hang over our gender like the sword of Damocles.

Mostly they are women in mid-life, over 40. But when the someone is young, like Dikla Benzeevi, who was 32 when first diagnosed with stage three breast cancer six years ago, the diagnosis seems crueler and sadder.

DIKLA BENZEEVI, Breast Cancer Patient: I was completely shocked. I think the world just stopped. The sound died. It was just really quiet.

And I went, “C’est la vie,” like, “Such is life.” I’m like — you know, you go through school for 12 or 16 years to create a career and learn what to do in life. And then, all of a sudden, you’re given a week or two to decide what to do for cancer therapy?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: There are 11,000 women under the age of 40 diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Their cancer is often more aggressive than that in older women, and it’s often found at a later stage because there isn’t any routine screening.

Dikla was mad. She wanted young women to pay attention, to watch for the signs, doctors, too. And she wanted a place where young survivors could connect and share their experiences.

Eventually, Dikla put together a network of 1,000 young women on the West Coast. She started joining every organization she could find and became a member of the Young Advisory Council of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Organization.

And she participated in all kinds of support groups, where young survivors could discuss their unique personal issues, like dating, love, marriage, sex, and having children.

BREAST CANCER PATIENT: I want the outside now to match what’s on the inside. And I want to feel beautiful again. And I don’t.

BREAST CANCER PATIENT: If I see a hot guy walking down the street, I look at him the same way I look at a plant.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Of the eight women in the roundtable, only two, including Dikla, are still alive.

Dikla’s ace in the hole, she says, has been her three older brothers. Both her parents died relatively young from cancer, and her brothers stepped up.

And when she had a recurrence, first to her spine and another to her lungs a year ago, they were there with her every step of the way, just as they are to this day, taking her to lunch, sitting with her while she gets acupuncture to help deal with the side effects of her ongoing treatment, always unwilling to let her face her ordeal alone.

DIKLA BENZEEVI: I am an advanced breast cancer patient. Treatment never ends for me. So I can’t say, “Oh, 10 years ago, I had breast cancer.” “Five years ago, I had breast cancer or I’m doing follow-ups. I hope it doesn’t come back.”

I’m always in treatment. I’m never going to be considered cured. Hopefully, I’ll be in remission for a long time.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And now there is someone else, a new love.

DIKLA BENZEEVI: So as I got better and felt stronger, I started feeling, “Oh, that guy is cute,” you know, the little butterflies and excitement. I was so happy to get that back. It’s such a part of being a woman.

And so I started going out a little bit, dating a little bit here and there. And about a year ago, I met a very nice young man, very L.A. style, at a movie screening. And we started going out. And he’s just been amazing.

I think our third or fourth date, he comes with me to the clinic for my treatments, sits there and holds my hand while I’m getting all these shots and IVs, and gives me a hug afterwards. And then we go to the beach and watch the sunset. And I’m like, oh, that made it so much easier on me.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: So the advocacy goes on, and the treatments, and the living. There will be no biological kids, something Dikla very much wanted.

She will settle for this other, for the unexpected sweetness she has found and for helping other young survivors navigate these waters. That, she says, is a rich life. Oh, yes, I say, it is.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.