Source: Los Angeles Times
By: Milton D. Carrero, The Morning Call
Look at Christine Brader’s deep, amber eyes and you will see her beauty. Look beyond her contorted lips, and the jaw she lost as a three-time oral cancer survivor. Radiation took away her teeth, but she smiles.
“I still feel like I’ve lost a great deal, she says, “but I’m still alive. And as long as I am alive, I am going to do what I can to help other people.”
Brader, 48, is sharing her face, her story and her time to tell the world about the dangers of smoking. The South Whitehall woman, who smoked about half-a-pack a day for 28 years, is featured in the national Truth campaign. Sponsored by the American Legacy Foundation, the series of ads present the unsweetened reality of those living with a serious illness caused by smoking.
Brader’s life is testament of resilience against oral cancer — a disease that, in five years, kills more than half of the 37,000 Americans diagnosed with it yearly, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.
“I still may not make it,” she says, “and I don’t have another chance in me. If I get it again, I’m done.”
Brader’s life seemed idyllic until she discovered she had cancer. She had a stable job, a beautiful house in the woods and two teenage children who inspired her. But in 2007, she went to her family doctor, believing that she had a sinus infection. Her situation was much more serious than she imagined.
“I can’t be sick,” she thought as soon as she heard the diagnosis. “I am a single mother with no one to help me. Nobody. I had my teenage children and I was busy, you know, it didn’t fit into my life. It really didn’t.”
But cancer made room for itself in her life, displacing those things she cherished the most.
“My life had always been about taking care of my children first,” she says. “Always, they came first. Not anymore. I had to survive to take care of my family. They have no one else.”
A week after her diagnosis, Brader took a decision that might have saved her. She was riding in the car with her son on the way to the hospital. They stopped at a gas station and Brader was upset. She took out her anger by crumpling her cigarette pack in her hands and throwing it out the window. She never smoked again.
“The damage may have already been done,” she realized, “but you don’t need to make it worse.”
It would get worse, however. The surgery and radiation treatments would only contain the disease for a year before another cancerous sore would arise in her mouth. This time the treatment would be more complicated because the radiation sessions she had endured to the wound in her mouth encumbered her ability to heal. She underwent 85 sessions of hyperbaric oxygen treatment to facilitate her healing.
It worked and she began feeling better. She even completed a 25-mile bike ride with her son in the Poconos.
Her journey was far from over. She didn’t tell her son, but all throughout the bicycle outing, she had a feeling that she was sick again.
“Most people don’t get through it, twice, and here I have it a third time in three years.”
Doctors confirmed her premonition. Her cancer was now stage 4. She needed her jaw removed to save her life.
If cancer had been a priority earlier, it would now take over her life. Brader was forced to eat through a feeding tube. She wasn’t strong enough to care for her dogs. She eventually decided to leave her house in Lehighton and move closer to her oral surgeon, Dr. Robert Laski.
“Because I smoked, I got sick,” she says. “My doctor is the best doctor in the world. He said: ‘It doesn’t matter how you got it, we are going to take care of it.’”
He did, and she is extremely grateful for it. She also feels in debt to the Oral Cancer Foundation, whose support proved invaluable in her recovery. Brader now volunteers daily on the foundation’s website, reaching out to those experiencing what she went through.
But she is placing most of her energy in promoting early detection and prevention.
“Imagine the humiliation of walking around and people staring at you every time you walk out the door,” she says. “If I could spare anybody that, I’ve done my job.”